Friday, February 25, 2005

Dead Villains' Hereafter.

Preface: I wrote this a few years back, and am presently revising it for possible publication somewhere. I think it's pretty funny, but the jokes are pretty esoteric and are helped tremendously if one has a passing familiarity with Shakespeare, especially Hamlet. I hope that anyone who invests the time (it's pretty short) will enjoy reading it nearly as much as I did writing it.

Opening scene: Enter Claudius, Polonius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. All sit on straw in the back of an open, horse-drawn cart, looking alternately confused, resentful, or despondent. The cart, with the shrouded figure of death at the helm, plods along slowly, evidenced by the recorded sound of hoofbeats against a road being played. The characters are to varying degree aware of what is going on: the action of Hamlet is concluded, and these dead villains are being removed to Tragic Villains’ Hell. All are bloodied and/or discolored respective to manner of death. All also have a peculiar narrative insight that might have been useful during their “lives,” but is merely irritating and frustrating in present state. There is a long, uncomfortable silence among them, no one wishing to be the first to speak.

GERTRUDE: ([Henceforth “GER”] sharply breaking the silence, to CLAUDIUS [henceforth CLAUD]): “Gertrude, do not drink.” That was the best you could do, Claudius? I, your loving wife of scandalous circumstances, toast Hamlet during what I believe to be a joyous and festive family reunion, in the process draining a half a goblet of the liquid plague you prepared for him, and “Gertrude, do not drink” is the brilliant advice you have to offer, thou incestuous, murd’rous, damned Dane?

CLAUD: (bitterly sarcastic) Oh, right then, take your son’s side now just because we’ve met our ends and he hasn’t. What a devoted and loyal wife and queen you turn out to be! But...that seems to be a recurring theme, now doesn’t it? A shame you didn't live through this. Perhaps you could have married the next member of my family!

GER: You regicidal, usurping twat! (Pause.) And what precisely are you talking about? He’s just as dead as the rest of us.

CLAUD: Then why exactly isn’t he here, your envenom’dness?

ROSENCRANTZ: (Hereafter “ROS,” still nervous around his royal companions.) Ahem, well, if you’d listened carefully at the orientation seminar before we’d climbed aboard, you might remember that Hamlet and Laertes were sent to Revengers’ Hell, a suburb of ours. It’s rumored to be quite nice, if a bit vengeful. (Pause.) Perhaps he’ll write.

(CLAUD glares at him.)

POLONIUS: (Hereafter “POL,” exclamatory, to apparently no one.) My daughter! My Daughter!

GUILDENSTERN: (Hereafter “GUIL,” awkwardly.) Ophelia, sir, has been sent to Christian Hell, the Lord having fix’d His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter, and all that.

POL: Woe!

ROS: (Cheerfully.) It might not be so bad for her, sir. The Church has abandoned much of the fire and brimstone rhetoric in recent years, preferring to depict Christian Hell as a place of unfulfilled longings and the like. (Pause.) Besides, I’m sure she and Othello will get on famously--form a tragic suicides support group, perhaps. (All but GUIL glare at him.) Sorry.

CLAUD: (Bitterly interjecting.) So let me see if I’ve got this all: Laertes, by benefit of noble motive, gets to join my nephew in some Valhallaesque place of glory and honor; Ophelia, though about as maiden as Queen Hapshetsut over here...

GER: Soft, your regal impotence.

CLAUD: (Ignoring.) ...gets to be pitied for eternity as the virgin martyr, and I’m stuck on an absurdly slow cart to nasty person’s perdition with a poisoned tart, a comically misguided old fool, and two indistinguishable, useless, and recently hanged courtiers who used to attend university with Hamlet. Have I got the gist?

ROS: Beheaded, my liege.

CLAUD: What?

ROS: Guildenstern and I were beheaded. Rather flattering, really, considering our modest station. We were only allowed to reattach our heads by benefit of a recent law enacted by the Damned Villains’ Union declaring eternal dismemberment or immolation to be cruel and not on.

GUIL: Lucky, weren’t we?

ROS: I’ll say. (To CLAUD.) You really were ignoring the orientation, weren’t you?

GER: (Indignant.) Well, s’wounds, he ignores his own wife drinking a cup of vintage Wrath of God, and you suppose he’s going to listen to some fop with a clipboard reading off the intricacies of the hereafter for two hours?

CLAUD: (Sternly.) Gertrude...

GER: I mean, really, he lets the recently vanquished Army of Norway saunter past his palace gate on their way to run an errand before overthrowing his kingdom, and you expect a “posthumous conduct and rules” chat to hold his attention? Be serious!

POL: My daughter!

(GUIL unexpectedly loses his temper, grabs POL by the shirt and begins to shake him.)
GUIL: (Shouting.) Will you not...shut...up? Enough about your daughter, for the love of God! She was a secondary character, almost to the extent which Rosencrantz and I were! She served to give potential narrative insight into Hamlet’s condition, and to give edge to the conflict between him and Laertes! No more! Dead for a ducat! Dead!

(ROS interrupts, tapping GUIL on the shoulder, causing him to release the terrified POL. He withdraws a brochure from his pocket, unfolds it and points out a certain section to GUIL, who reads it attentively before resuming his seat, slightly embarrassed.)

GUIL: (Sheepishly.) Sorry.

CLAUD: What?

GUIL: Seems I nodded off a touch myself during the “penalties” phase of the seminar.


GUIL: Well it seems...

ROS: ...that due to ubiquitously infelicitous use of language during his life...

GUIL: ...that the Lord Polonious is only allowed to speak the words “my daughter...”

ROS: ...along with varied exclamations of woe such as “woe,”“o woe,” and “woe is me...”

GUL: ...for the rest of eternity under the “no tremendous loss” sublaw.

CLAUD: Ah, well then. That quiets one of us at least.

GER: Enough, murtherer and villain.

CLAUD: Aye, woman, a self-murtherer for wedding a lodestone of death such as thou art. Can’t hide our doddering old fool here behind a curtain without you shouting a contrived “help, ho” to get him discovered and unseem’d. A month after you fetch your son’s school chums to help us figure out what he’s about and–look!–what a lovely necklace of gore they get to wear into perpetuity! Every male who's had the dire misfortune to be alone with you in the last year is now stumbling somewhere about in the underworld wondering just where it all went askew. I begin to think my brother’s untimely death was inevitable. Sleep with a black widow long enough and some poison is simply bound to come your way.

GUIL: Excuse me...

GER: (Testy.) What do you want?

GUIL: (Gathering assertiveness.) You know, the partial correctness of the King here aside, I’ve been a bit curious as to what exactly we (motioning to ROS and himself) are doing here? I mean right, sure, (He extends a hand to stop ROS, who is again fumbling for the brochure) in a purely technical and dramatic sense, we were your co-conspirators. But it isn’t as if we did anything all that wrong, now is it? We show up at you summons like a couple of good, obsequious courtiers in search of preferment--“a King’s remembrance,” if I recall–have a couple of utterly baffling conversations with your oh-so-much-more-clever-than-us melancholy Prince, get on a boat with him and a mysterious letter, and, next thing you know, I feel my liberated head bouncing about on some dirty English floor. As if we knew that your insecure yet homicidal spouse here had ordered the death of Prince Hamlet! He didn’t have to redirect his aggression toward us! We were, at best, accidental spies! “Yeah, yeah, that’s tragedy” you say. Well, where does fair enter into this equation, I’d bloody well like to know?

(Before anyone can respond, the stage lights turn up slightly and the sound of the horse’s hoofbeats slows.)

POL: O, I am slain!


Scene 2: The cart is now at rest in a dismal room that appears to be a cross between a ruined gothic cathedral and a London Jobcentre. The dead villains have disembarked and now stand in a lengthy queue before a large desk except GER, who stands apart. At the desk sits a clerk whose garb is a mix of Venetian soldier and Britrail ticket inspector. He has a gaping chest wound which bleeds assiduously onto the desk and floor, but seems not to notice. He has silent conversations with each successive person in line, who then depart offstage until CLAUD comes to the fore.

GER:(Aside.) Although my ruinous counsel hath found ruin,
These hellish mercies greet me none too soon.
Libid’nous, friv’lous, cruel, incestuous I,
Wish only that my Hamlets did not die.
Engaged aboard a dam’ned cart of fools,
I, woodcock, am ensnared by dramatic rules.
And tho’ God hide redemptive light from me,
I would but pray for better company. (Exit.)

CLERK: Right, who’s first?

CLAUD: Nay, not first. Second, in birth, and hell, and all, that’s me.

CLERK: That was lovely. You’re Claudius?


CLERK: (Bored, officious.) Right. Says here (Refers to a document.) you murdered your brother, stole his crown, married his wife under false pretenses, were ratted out by his ghost, set a trap for his revenging son, and were undone by your own treachery. Yeah?

CLAUD: I suppose...

CLERK: And it also says you were a ubiquitously worthless monarch, constantly on the piss, unable to consolidate power, intelligence effectively, quiet the masses, or defend the state. That all correct?

CLAUD: To an extent...

CLERK: Right. Well, seems you’ve been sentenced to the Inefficient Usurpers Ward, where you’ll get to hear MacBeth recite that “life’s but a walking shadow” bit 1,000 times daily until the end of recorded drama. As an additional bonus, King Richard III, (the fictitious version) will view you as a direct competitor and assassinate you in a grisly manner not less than fortnightly. Away with you.
(Enter GUARDS, who take CLAUD and forcibly lead him away.)

CLAUD: O. My offense is rank, it smells to heaven! (Exit.)

CLERK: Not from here it doesn’t. We haven’t got all day. Who’s next?

POL: My...

CLERK: Right. Polonius. I see they’ve already instituted you preliminary punishment. Hell gets more spot on everyday, I say. Says here (Again refers to document.) You were a buffoon unwittingly allied to an insidious tyrant. Yeah?

POL: O, woe!

CLERK: Alright then. Off with you to the Tragic Villains’ Pensioners Home. You can exchange war stories with geriatric corpses from Titus Andronicus and The Spanish Tragedy. Move along.
(Enter guards with a wheelchair, into which they shove POL before maneuvering him offstage. Exit.)

CLERK: Onward, then. Queen Gertrude, says here you were a lascivious trollop who pounced on your husband’s younger brother ere his body was cold before...(Pause.) Queen Gertrude?
(Enter MESSENGER, with a letter.)

CLERK: What’s this, then?

MESSENGER: Letter from Queen Gertrude, sir. (Exit.)

CLERK: (Opens letter and reads aloud.) Dearest Turnkey, Sorry about slipping past you so, but I am now happily wedded to the Lord Polonius and living in the Pensioner’s Home. Send kisses to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Good luck and Godspeed, (no pun intended)–Gertrude. (Pause.) And she’s even enclosed a photograph.

ROS: A photograph? Wasn’t she listening during the “no anachronisms” phase of the seminar?

GUIL: (Sighs.) It would appear not.

CLERK: Well, apart from all this...

GUIL: (From nowhere.) Can I ask you a question?

CLERK: Yeah?

GUIL: How’d you get that nasty chest wound?

CLERK: I bleed sir, but not kill’d.

GUIL: (Triumphant.) I knew it! You’re Iago!

CLERK: Yeah, yeah. They all figure it out sooner or later. Villains without clear motive make up the bureacracy around here. Worst punishment they could devise. Thanks for caring. Now, about you...

ROS and GUIL: Yes?

CLERK: I have here that you were gullible suck-ups, who, although appallingly bad spies, were inherently devoid of malicious intent, and...

(Enter OVERWORLD REPRESENTATIVE, henceforth REP, an American dressed in a smart modern business suit.)

CLERK: (Clearly bothered by the intrusion.) ‘Ew are you?

REP: Sorry to interrupt, but...

CLERK: ...and ow’d you get here?

REP: Well, you see, this is fiction, and we (Points upward.)control it.

CLERK: (Defeated.) Right. Carry on then.

REP: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern!

ROS and GUIL: Yes?

REP: You’ve been recalled. Come on, I’ve got a car waiting.

GUIL: (Taken aback.) But this is...

ROS: ...Tragic Villains’ Hell...

GUIL: ...and the only place we’ve ever been...

ROS: ...due to any personal fame or notoriety of any sort. And besides, this is the afterlife, meaning that...

GUIL: ...we’re here for eternity, right?

REP: Don’t be ridiculous.

ROS: What do you mean?

REP: You really think your existence and death are irreversible? Immutable? That you’ve moved from the realm of flesh into that of legend, like Hercules?

GUIL: Well...

ROS: ...we’d hoped.

REP: Well, guess what? Hercules has been busy starring on bad UPN television shows! You are no more granted permanent rest than a belch is. Somebody, somewhere, belches, and that’s the end of it as an episode, but certainly not as an art form. Somebody, somewhere, will pick up where said belcher, who we will designate person “A,” left off, and it may be better or worse, and it certainly won’t be the same, but the narrative started by that ur-belch will continue. Get it?

GUIL: Not even a bit.

REP: Okay, it works like this: you were created by a 400-years-dead, incredibly influential Renaissance English playwright, who himself lifted the plot of his play from earlier sources. There was no such thing as intellectual property, and it wouldn’t matter if there had been. You exist in the public domain now. It's ironic, really: you were written in a style meant to remind your era of a period they considered classical. But now your period seems classical to my modernity, and hence characters like you keep getting excavated and reused. You are, to continue my vulgar but appropriate little analogy, like the indigestion of a previous era. You are the gastric residue of a prior fiction that has resurfaced, perhaps tastelessly, perhaps bringing a bit of relief, but back again nonetheless. You aren't dead, so can't stay here anymore; you’ve been revived.

ROS: Meaning?

REP: Meaning some guy Stoppard’s written a play about you called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, or something like that. Now come on. (Exit.)

ROS: (Puzzled.) Why do I get the feeling...

GUIL: ...that we may be back here again?

ROS: I just don’t know.

ROS and GUIL: Bye Iago!

CLERK: See ya’ later.

(Exit ROS and GUIL, lights come up. From offstage comes the voice of POL.)

POL: My daughter!

  • END.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Poor Child of the Eighties.

There are a couple of decent interpretations to this story: one is that I’m simply and naturally an absolute idiot, which on grounds of brevity has a certain appeal. I prefer a different one, having a bit more sympathy toward the protagonist. I like to think that technology has made me stupid, so lacking in that hard-acquired, caveman and cowboy style of self-reliance, that I am abjectly unequipped to deal with its new forms and permutations.

I have a leather armchair. I like to sit and read in my leather armchair.

I am a graduate student who has heaps of obligatory reading, with attendant typewritten synopses.

I have a computer. In front of the computer is the rickety and off-balance office chair. It is not nearly as comfortable as the exquisitely broken-in leather armchair (and handsome matching ottoman). For the two weeks since, Christmas-morning-of -the-Transformers-days-like, I tore open the box to my (first) new computer, I have been sitting before it in yonder office chair, pining away for the comforts of the armchair. I can’t move the latter into the office; the arms simply wouldn’t fit under the desk. Besides, I’d just have to move it back again when I was finished, and that’s a hassle.

So, in order to reconcile my very human desire for reading comfort with my strictly academic need to have typed reading summaries, I do something so unthinkably impractical that I blush to admit it: I take handwritten notes while reading in the armchair and then painstakingly transcribe them to computer text. It’s revision, I tell myself, not redundant expenditure of time and effort.

Or at least I did. After too many days of alternating between this laborious production and the even more arduous ninnying about between two rooms to take notes on the keyboard while reading (and losing my place) in the armchair, my waning patience spurred my imagination to act. A light came on, if you will. No, that is giving too much credit. A gas lamp was held aloft in the mineshaft; a candle was carried onstage to let everyone in the audience know that it’s nighttime at the MacBeth’s. A chimp realized he could use a stalk of grass to get insects from a tree.

Allow a digression. My parents’ daft and cantankerous next door neighbor, Mrs. Ellesworth, had an even dafter dog named Alfie. Alfie entertained himself by running to and fro on his side of the chain link fence separating our two back yards, barking for hours at any and all children playing (often many) on ours. His large, implicit threat (although a Schnauzer mutt, and hence neither large nor threatening) was “if ever that fence be gone, I’ll lick the blood from your bones.” Alfie, in his advanced years, got his wish; the Ellesworths took down the decaying fence. But a funny thing happened. Instead of springing for the nearest jugular, as he’d promised lo those many years, Alfie just kept running back and forth in his little rut, as if the fence were still there. The idea that he could cross a line he’d never crossed in all his life was simply too much for his old-dog bean to fathom. If I hadn’t seen it myself I wouldn’t have believed it.

So I thought of Alfie, after, as a 31-year-old male raised his entire life on 30-pound MacIntosh computers with twenty-odd plugs sprouting from them, I walked into my office, closed my notebook, unplugged it and moved it into the other room.

Yes, that’s right. My computer is a laptop. One would be correct in assuming it my first laptop. It weighs about seven pounds; I bought it because it was small and portable. And yet, within minutes of its being booted for the first time, it filed itself into the “desktop computer” section of my memory which, prior to that experience and with no contrary input, doubled as the “refrigerator and sofa” section of memory–the place where cumbersome, time-consuming, difficult to move things resided. It took two weeks for it to occur to me that I could quickly and easily unplug it and move it fourteen feet. I’ve since moved the plug as well to spare the battery. That took an additional eight or ten seconds.

I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve come to think of as that Celestial Epiphany, and my musings have taken on a sort of nostalgic, sympathetic bent. Perhaps it wasn’t so odd, after all, that Grandma was scared of microwaves, or that my mother still thinks of e-mail as arcane sorcery and stays far away from my father’s Mac. Perhaps the bewildered looks I get when explaining that I don’t watch TV and couldn’t tell a Backstreet Boy from a Teletubby and still do most of my music shopping in actual stores will just get more frequent and more amazed over the coming years. I am growing old and unhip, and that first, telltale sign, the inability to grasp facile uses of technologies popularized after my adulthood, has sprouted forth like a malignant growth screaming “everyone look at the old out-of-touch guy! See how he marvels at laptop computers and how small the new PS2 is!” I am, like Alfie, the proverbial silly old dog who cannot, despite his best intentions, learn new tricks.

And I’m only 31. I’ve got decades to be bewildered, awestruck, agape, awash in my own ever-increasing obsolescence. Children will point in horror at the man with the low-definition TV, the one that blathers on about cassette tapes and VHS recordings, about Friends and ER on good days–and The Empire Strikes Back on bad ones. I have vistas and horizons yet undreamt of to cross in my journey into fully accredited doddering old fooldom; I have only yet begun to fight.

So I raise a glass of beer (no hip red drinks served in a martini glass, thank you) to my fellows in the growing throng of the newly out of touch, and offer the following corruption of Marx: Alfies of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your dignity. You have a world to gain.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Your Daily Governmental Satire: Jon Stewart, Take Notes.

In the school of political projectors I was but ill entertained, the professors appearing in their judgement wholly out of their senses , which is a scene that never fails to make me melancholy. These unhappy persons were proposing schemes for persuading monarchs to choose favourites upon the score of their wisdom, capacity, and virtue; of teaching ministers to consult the public good, of rewarding merit, great abilities, eminent services; of instructing princes to know their true interest by placing it on the same foundation with that of their people; of choosing for employments people qualified to execute them; with many other wild impossible chimeras, that never entered before into the heart of man to conceive, and confirmed in me the old observation, that there is nothing so extravagant and irrational which some philosophers have not maintained for truth.

--Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

As Promised...

An esoteric dirty joke from the 1675 English stage comedy, William Wycherly's The Country Wife...

Pinchwife: I will not be a cuckold, I say; there will be a danger in making me a cuckold.

Horner: Why, wert thou not well cured of thy last clap?

Any woman, by the way, that got that and laughed has a standing marriage proposal.