The Princess and the Cobwebs
By Jim Sizemore
There once lived a King in a castle high on a hill overlooking rich farmlands and forests. The King owned everything as far as the eye could see. His peasants labored from sunup to sundown growing his crops, tending his flocks and carefully breeding his livestock. The King, a more-or-less fair man, as absolute rulers go, allowed the peasants to keep a reasonable share of their earnings. So, as peasants go, they were more-or-less happy.
But the King had recently become terribly unhappy. Some years before the time of this story, his wife the Queen had died. The King then shifted all of his love and attention to his only child, and the beautiful young girl became his obsession. For a time, his focus on her was enough to keep the King perfectly happy. But then she changed, as children always do; the once sunny girl turned into a sullen, hyper-sensitive adolescent.
The King was distraught. He tried reasoning with his daughter, pleaded with her to tell him what the problem was so he could have it fixed. But his heightened concern only made matters worse. She became more and more distant, and soon refused to communicate with her father at all. The King was depressed. His work suffered. The lack of royal leadership was felt across the land. Crops failed. Taxes went uncollected. Battles with neighboring kingdoms over land rights and such were at first neglected, then lost by default.
As powerless administrative bodies often do, the King’s Court panicked. Dire interventions into the King’s business were considered by some of the younger court members. As young men often do, they even convened a secret meeting to plan a royal coup d’etat. When the Court Wizard heard about what was going on, he suggested a delaying tactic to head off an uprising. The Princess would be handed over to him for a complete physical, mental and spiritual evaluation. The King agreed, despite that doing so amounted to admitting that the Royal Blood had become tainted. A cover-up story was concocted and the exam scheduled. Despite attempts to keep things quiet, the scandal leaked, and it soon became obvious to even the lowest peasant that their King was a desperate man, not unlike the most common of his subjects.
In time the report came back and was duly translated from arcane medical jargon into the King’s English. It stated that the only unusual finding was a heretofore unheard of condition, caused by No-One-Knew-What. Small cobweb-like fibers, with the tensile strength of steel, were growing in the girl’s ears. The good news: their progress appeared to be very slow. Even so, the condition limited the social life of the princess. For one thing, the sprouts effected her balance. She walked with an erratic gate, couldn’t run or jump, and her favorite pass time, dancing, was out of the question. The Wizard explained that all this angst seemed to account for the Princess’ bad behavior; it was, he declared, enough to unsettle anyone. The Wizard’s report ended with an apology. He confessed that he had already tried all of his magic tricks, and nothing had worked. Therefore, as good fake doctor’s do, he recommended taking a “wait-and-see” attitude.
The King was grateful that the Wizard had at least suggested his daughter’s problem, but he was not satisfied with the passive approach. In better days The King had been a man of action, and now he was once again inspired to draw upon that attribute. He instructed his Town Crier to issue a bold proclamation. The King decreed that any man who could free the Princess from her problem, and thereby restore her cheerful character, would be fixed for the span of his natural life—at least gold-coin-wise. Also, subject to the approval of the Princess, The King threw in the possibility of a marriage option.
Every eligible young swain in the Kingdom, every aging bachelor, every social-climbing-son-of-a Duke, applied to have a go at solving the mystery. Some of the men were crude in their approach, as we know men can be, especially when in competition for the hand of a rich and beautiful young woman. Several tried outlandish physical humor: standing on their heads and spinning while juggling three balls. Others took the subtle approach, bombarding her with terrible puns and corny jokes. Then there were the totally clueless ones who attempted to melt the fibers by whispering sweet nothings into her ears. Alas, none of it worked, and the Princess grew only more awkward and ill-tempered.
The King was desperate. Finally the bachelor son of the court sheep herder came forward. This was most unusual. As a rule, a commoner would not dare to think that he had anything to offer one so high-born. But to this sheepherder-in-training, known in the kingdom as Max the Talker, no such self-effacing idea had ever occurred. From birth, Max had shown unusual self-respect, a natural sense of entitlement, so to speak. On the day of his application appointment with Her Highness at the Castle, he showed up perfectly relaxed, head erect, back straight, smiling sweetly.
After just one session with Max the Talker, the King noted an improvement in his daughter. For the first time in three years, she actually smiled. And she asked for permission to see Max again, which of course was granted. Thus it came to be that Max the Talker was allowed to spend one hour each afternoon with the Princess. At first they met in her chambers, chaperoned by her Ladies in Waiting. For the next six months they spent the hour talking about subjects of mutual interest on a wide range of subjects: history, music, clothes, books, food, dancing and suchlike. Max the Talker never mentioned the cobwebs, and neither did the Princess. Nevertheless, she continued to recover. Before long she demanded even more privacy, which the King was quick to allow. From then on the chamber door was locked from the inside, the couple now without adult supervision of any sort. With this new arrangement, it was obvious to everyone that the Princess’ rate of recovery had accelerated. She was becoming her old sunny self again.
The King was ecstatic. His work, such as it was, improved. The Peasants had never been better managed. The Kings’ soldiers once again became victorious in battle. Taxes were paid on time for the first time in three years. Quarterly reports indicated that the Royal financial house was in order, again showing profits for each quarter—and at rates higher than ever before. The Wizard, when he reexamined the Princess, was amazed: The “cobwebs” had vanished. This news was quickly reported to the King who, without hesitating, awarded Max the Talker the fortune in gold, plus his restored daughter’s hand in marriage. To the King’s surprise, and also to his relief, Max the Talker graciously declined the hand of the Princess. He used the golden windfall to buy a small farm, plus a huge herd of sheep, larger even than the King’s own.
As the months went by, and when not too busy with chores, Max the Talker was content to hang out with his many peasant friends, discussing this and that—anything they found conversation-worthy. In the evenings, he made notes in his journal. And best of all, he finally had enough free time to write at length, which had always been his passion. Max knew that he could never have been this happy as a member of the King’s Court, so he felt not the slightest twinge of regret. He and the Princess remained friends, and met from time-to-time for a longish chat. Eighteen months after the disappearance of her ear problem, the Princess met a handsome peer from a nearby Kingdom and fell in love. And that was that.
Max the Talker, meanwhile, staying true to his character, spent the rest of his days living just as he had always thought he would—happily ever after . . .
Copyright © 2016 Jim Sizemore
With the help of Margaret Osburn’s Deepdene Writers’ Group, I’ve recently been working on the first draft of what I hope will be the third play in a trilogy. It’s called “Kitty.” The first play in the series, “Cecil Virginia, 1964,” was produced by the Baltimore Playwrights’ Festival in 1985. (Click City Paper 8/30/85 review, above). The second play, featuring Kitty’s violent husband and his male friends, titled “Joe Pete,” was produced by the BPF in August, 1999, some fourteen years after the first one. As of this date, it’s been over 16 years since play number two appeared on a local stage. Assuming I manage to finish the third play in a year or two—and assuming I’m lucky enough to have it produced—I’ll have proved that in addition to my many other theatrical limitations, I’m one very slow writer of dialogue.
What more could we have asked, so long ago,
than this, this endless noon, this cloudless sky,
idyllic, constant, calm? How could we know
we’d weary of that bright, unblinking eye?
Such blessings grow oppressive, and this grace
now lays upon us torpor like a pall;
each languid move, each whispered word, each trace
of breath–the weight of hours has stilled them all.
Life teeters on the fulcrum of the sun
until the course of nature drags it down,
progressing slowly through the vacant plain
to that last, passing point where we are shown
a shaft of light between two standing stones–
a sign–before the longest day is done.
Florence Newman, Professor emerita
Department of English, Towson University
By David Mamet
“The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. . . . Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. . . . People only speak to get something. . . . They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective.”
From the Hilton Als commentary, “True Lies”
The New Yorker, June 29, 2015
Bad Actors II
This is an edited re-post. Click images to enlarge.
Joe Pete, staged by the Baltimore Playwrights Festival in 1999, was my second theatrical attempt to get into the head of the man who, in real life, murdered my favorite first cousin. That man was Phyllis Jean’s husband. In the play, I call him Joe Pete. Since I knew nothing about the real man, the character, except for the crime, is a total fiction. (He is also the same character that was in Cecil Virginia, 1964, my first produced play by the BPF, in August 1985. See Bad Actors I, for details.)
Joe Pete is Kitty’s husband. He’s a working man, inarticulate, violent, someone we come to know through a web of conflicting stories, verbal games played-out among his drinking buddies, and later during interviews with a prison doctor. My goal with this play was to use drama with darkly comedic shadings to deal more directly with the killing of Kitty, to move in for a close-up of Joe Pete, so to speak. And this time, I swore to myself that there would be no off-stage climax.
The following lines are from a scene in a local bar, the afternoon before Joe Pete kills Kitty. The tavern is a hangout for paper-mill workers. Here we find his friends, Ray and Byron, and Jack, the bartender. The first two are waiting for Joe Pete to show up so they can make plans for a hunting trip. The scene begins with a stage direction:
BYRON takes a sip or two, then smacks his half-empty glass down on the bar, splashing beer.
RAY (pointing): I’m writin’ a song about that.
BYRON: My damn beer glass?
RAY: Not just that, no. It’s about a guy drinkin’ in a dim joint in the bright afternoon. Just sittin’ and drinkin’ and talkin’. Maybe playin’ some pool. Bright sunlight outside, dim bar light inside. (pause) All stuff like that.
JACK (working behind the bar): Yeah. Sure.
RAY: Well, I am. (points again) How light reflects off the glass, how pretty that is?—and that bottle! Ever see anythin’ so—
BYRON (overlapping): What’s the song called, Ray?
RAY (mild pride): “She Took My Love and Took Off.” But all I’ve got so far is—
JACK (overlapping): Ha! Shiiiiiiiiiiiiii-IT!
JOE PETE enters.
BYRON (waving): Hey—Joe Pete, old buddie!
JOE PETE (ignores BYRON, ranting): That Todd is one sorry son-of-bitch! Sorriest no-good son-of-a-bitch that ever lived!
RAY (lightly): What’d the bastard do this time?
JOE PETE: Usual sorry-assed shit.
RAY (remaining positive): Todd get you that straight day work yet, like he said?
JOE PETE: Even if he does, he’s still one schemin’ no-good sorry son-of-a—
BYRON (overlapping, gentle): Word at the mill says Todd put you in for a raise, too, an—
JOE PETE (overlapping): Look, if I get it, it’s ‘cause I deserve it. Don’t have to kiss Todd’s ass for what’s rightly mine. (pause) Son-of-a-bitch calls me in his office. Says he’s talked to the big bosses. (reciting) “Told ‘em your situation, Joe Pete, It’s up to you now,” he says. “Can’t protect you no more.” (pause): Ha! Who the fuck needs ‘im?
RAY: The man just wants to know what exactly it is you’re after.
JOE PETE: Ain’t what I want. I don’t care. It’s what Kitty wants.
BYRON (innocent): I’m sure Todd knows what that is. I’m sure he—
JOE PETE (overlapping, suspicious): What’s that?
BYRON: I’m sure Todd has the best interests of Kitty an—
JOE PETE (overlapping, cold): How would that sorry shit know what my wife wants?
Trying to write plays, I discovered that if I had an overarching concept, it helped me to proceed without getting too stuck. My vague idea in this case was that the characters Joe Pete, Ray, and Byron each represent distinct stages in the evolution of the human male (primitive, transitional, evolved). In a sense, the characters grew from three parts of my own split self. For me, Ray was the more interesting character. He matures during the course of the play and becomes a thoughtful, creative doubter, who isn’t sure the old “manly” ways stand up even while he’s still attracted to them. Ray is willing to change. He is confused (like me), but that is expressed in a positive form, as a wannabe singer/songwriter, rather than in anger and rage.
Working in theater taught me that collaboration must include tact, something that doesn’t come easily to me. I have a history of getting into scrapes (mostly verbal) with coworkers and others. (My mother liked to say that I was her only son born with his foot in his mouth.) Even now, what little tact I have has accrued over a long life. So when I noticed rehearsal problems with the character-development of Ray, I made an effort to be gentle about getting them resolved. The following is a note that I gave my first-time director.
“I see Ray as a mixture of Joe Pete (lost soul/caveman) and Byron (older/evolved/sweet). Ray, at this age, is still more ‘Joe Pete’ than ‘Byron,’ but at least he’s headed in the right direction. Ray’s tough, but shows softer tendencies as well. I’m not sure I’ve captured this in the text. But if you dig deeply during rehearsals, I think you’ll find places where—through gesture, expression, body language, reading emphasis and clever blocking—you can point up Ray’s humanity and his movement away from the ‘lost soul’ model of Joe Pete.
“When Ray says his wife claims their baby is afraid of him, we need to clearly see real sadness. Another opportunity is Ray’s monologue about throwing their decorated Christmas tree across the room in a rage. At first he talks about the rampage as sort of funny. We need his expression and gestures to show him more sad than amused. There are other places in the script where we can emphasize Ray’s sweeter side. The actor playing Ray is doing a good job, but I would like to see more softness—and have this side of him become stronger as the play proceeds. Let me know if rewrites might help to help achieve this.”
Some critics had problems with Joe Pete’s extreme meanness, and this review from a local paper amounts to damning with faint praise. “‘A man with a rifle is as likely to use it on his wife as on a deer . . .’ (is) basically the attitude toward the male gender in Joe Pete. The titular character even says, ‘A man who ain’t tough with his woman just ain’t a man’ . . . . the playwright’s knack for naturalistic banter proves to be a mixed blessing . . . . the mostly comic bull sessions are meant to incrementally build until the underlying tensions finally explode . . . Joe Pete has a strong theme and solid performances (but) some rewriting could whittle down the redundancies, make the characters more than the sum of a few defining masculine traits, and smooth the transitions.”
On the other hand, one critic said, “The barroom is the classic American dramatic setting for revealing truths . . . where beer is consumed, the talk is aimless and circular, and posturing is elevated to performance art . . . (the playwright) balances the ugly, male swaggering with a rich vein of humor. The oddly catchy language was quoted widely on the sidewalk during intermission (‘available pussy’ seemed to be the favorite). ”
As I wrote the play, I knew I’ve made progress in my own evolution, but also that I still have a way go. For instance, the least perception of unfairness or disrespect can still get a potentially violent rise out of me. It’s happened only a few times, but the fact that I’m still that touchy is troubling. Especially since when it does occur, I also detect, very close to the surface, the icy desire for blood.
I still wonder if I made Ray too goody-goody, sort of over-civilized him. Nevertheless, he is the character with whom I relate the most—not Joe Pete. Perhaps if I had the opportunity to rewrite and re-stage the play (with a different title), I’d make Ray more the focus, since his growth represents the path to a higher plane of behavior toward which I’ve been struggling these many years, albeit with mixed results.
Meanwhile, I remind myself that I could be much worse. The two community theater actor/killers I happen to have known in real life never harmed a stranger, as far as I know, but they brutally murdered people very close to them. (See the Bad Actors I post from 2/28/15). The fact those men resorted to lethal violence suggests to me that, given some extreme situations I’ve been in, I might have gone as far as they did. But I also know that, compared to them—thanks to my still evolving “Ray-like” creative self control—I am very much an amateur.
Copyright © 2015 Jim Sizemore.