The Last Stately House: A Ten-Minute Play

I’ve been reading some of my old ten-minute plays I used to write for 24-Hour New Plays Festivals, for Columbia College Chicago, and then later for the Immediacy Theatre Project. This is one of the latter ones, which means it’s newer, though it’s still not very new.

I remember loving my actors, but feeling ambivalent about my writing at the time. But every time I read it, I still think (as Carlos says) that there’s a “there, there.” That’s one of his favorite phrases. “There’s a there, there.” The phrase reminds me of the word haecceity, which is one of my favorites. It means the “thisness” of a thing.

One of my actors was a beautiful young gay man who had played many a straight lover on stage. He wanted to play a lover who was more like himself. So I wrote him a role that starts melancholy but ends in hope. I don’t remember what inspired me to write the other two roles. I think that maybe one of the actresses was a trained opera singer, so I gave her a snippet of Gluck to sing. If I could guess from the text, I would say that the other actress always wanted to go hang-gliding, or was a trained hang-glider, or maybe just loved flying dreams. But I can’t be sure.

So today, I thought for something different I’d post this thing in its entirety, for your viewing pleasure.

CW for different manners of death discussed; the play takes place in a kind of afterlife, as so much theatre does.

I didn’t get to see it performed; I wrote it for the actors of the Saint Louis Immediacy Theatre Project when I was in Rhode Island, I think. This one, and one other called “Raven, Tiger, Woman, Tree” that maybe I’ll share with you another time.


IN THE GARDEN AT THE BOTTOM OF THE LAST STATELY HOUSE

by 

C. S. E. Cooney

CHARACTERS

THE THREE DREAMERS

Plague: a young man who watched his mother fall from the plague (ragged urban clothes)

Garden: an older woman who wanted a garden outside the city, mother of Plague’s lover (a crown of torn green leaves)

Cliff: a person who was hounded off the cliff by city people, broken and only half-mended (tattered wings)

The Three Dreamers are in a walled-in garden. Above them is the city, “The Big Smoke.” At the other side of the garden wall looms the Last Stately House. The windows are lit. Sometimes there is a flicker of movement behind them. The dreamers recite the invocation, perhaps with a drum, sung or chanted, in round or in harmony, repeat as needed.

CLIFF, GARDEN, PLAGUE (together)
Juntos romperemos todos los límites
Juntos juntamos las cosas disímiles
Juntos cruzaremos la ultima frontera
Juntos saltaremos al dentro la caldera

CLIFF
Now that that’s over with—

GARDEN
It’s a sacred ritual. No need to dismiss it so lightly. 

CLIFF
My bones are smashed and my wings are broken. I have to do something lightly. So, we all know where I came from. 

She points up, dives her finger down with a whistle and KER-PLOWy sort of sound, says to Garden:

But you, what, did you grow here or something? 

GARDEN
Oh, no. I’ve traveled some. Toured this city and that. 
Ended up here to tend a few things. The garden was only one of them.

PLAGUE
I’m from the city. 

CLIFF
The city, city? The one on the cliff? 

She points up again.

PLAGUE
 The Big Smoke, we call it. 
Dirt and bodies. Flies. One big sickness.
Nothing grows there, only dies.

GARDEN
Were you born there? 

PLAGUE
I don’t remember. My mother said so, anyway.

GARDEN
I was born in an opera house, beneath the naked thighs of a gilded caryatid. 
My mother was a chorus girl, my daddy was a phantom in the sub-basement. 
I grew up in greasepaint, but I always wanted a garden. And now I’ve got one. 

CLIFF
That must be very satisfying for you. 

GARDEN
And yet, I remain unmoved by your sarcasm.
 Look around you. The mossery underfoot, the ivy on the walls. 
No door, hidden or otherwise. 
Roses. Red, where the nightingale pierced her heart on the thorns.
All these statues.

PLAGUE
I’ve lived in the city so long.
I have longed for this quiet. To be a statue, like the statues here—

GARDEN
You know what I think? I think they’re watching me. 
Like those portraits of famous people? Celebrities and deities, that sort of thing? They sort of follow you around with their eyes?
Only with statues, it’s far more personal. It’s not just their eyes that move.
Their whole bodies reach out when I’m not looking.

CLIFF
That’s why I ran. There were people—horrible people—chasing me. 
Not statues, more like animals, baying at my heels. 
I wish I’d had a shock stick. I wish I’d turned around and smashed their skulls in.

GARDEN 
That’s what happens when you turn people into animals—you want to hurt them. I read a study about it once. Call someone a cockroach and you’re more likely to kick them.

CLIFF
I’d never hurt a real animal. I don’t even wear fur.
But human animals—when they hunt you, it’s either fight them or run.
And you saw what happened. I ran.

PLAGUE
We all run. 

GARDEN 
Not all of us. 

CLIFF
There was a cliff ahead. I knew it was coming, but I couldn’t stop in time. 
No. I didn’t stop in time. On purpose.
They were right behind me. They wanted to tear me, tear me, so I—

She can’t continue. A pause.

PLAGUE
I was with my mother, in the city. 
She wanted, I don’t know, the anonymity of the urban vastitudes.
But I could feel the city shrinking me. Every day I got smaller.
 Even my mother forgot, after a while, that I was there.
One day we went walking—even though it was dangerous—even though they warned us about the sickness. 
But she wanted to go out, and I wanted to protect her, so I followed. 
She never noticed. She walked ahead of me. Facing away.
All I could see was her back.
I called to her—Mother!—but—

CLIFF
I jumped. Before they could push me.

GARDEN
Yes. 

PLAGUE
She fell. Right in front of me.

GARDEN
Yes.

CLIFF
And then—flight.

GARDEN
Now, that’s something, isn’t it? Sometimes I fly, too. I never know why I do, I just do. I go to bed every night hoping I’ll fly again. It’s always such a treat.

CLIFF
It wasn’t like that for me. It’s just, when I jumped, I never hit bottom. 
Instead, my spine shattered into all these brave new bones—hang-glider-wide. 
My skin stretched to fill their new frame.
Such a delicate membrane: so thin, the moonlight might puncture it.

GARDEN
How long did you stay aloft? Sometimes I can fly all night. 

CLIFF
I flew—I don’t know how long I flew. But it wasn’t like that, it was—

GARDEN
It’s wonderful, isn’t it, flying? Just wonderful! 
One time, I flew from one end of the city to the next. 
High above the smoke. The lights.
I never plan my route.
There are no maps up there, only landmarks.

CLIFF
 It was, yes, wonderful—except, somehow, I knew it was for the last time. 
After that first flight, I knew, I’ll never fly again.

GARDEN
Well, that’s not very optimistic, is it?

PLAGUE
Look at her wings. Pulp and ribbons. She’ll never fly again. 

CLIFF
I know, because after that first flight, I went back to the city. Started over. I thought everything would be normal again. That I could just live, and be ignored. 
But they found me. They came howling to my door. 
And they hounded me right to the edge of the cliff. 
I jumped again—of course I did—but that time, my wings didn’t work. And so . . .

She makes the whistledown KERPLOW-y noise again.

Here we all are.
I always end up in this garden.

PLAGUE
Say what you will about it, at least it’s not the city. 

CLIFF
I’ll drink to that.

PLAGUE
I’ll never go back to that place. The cliff, and then the buildings like cliffs piled on top of that.

GARDEN
The only building around here is that house across the wall. What did we decide to call it again?

CLIFF, GARDEN, PLAGUE (together)
The Last Stately House. 

GARDEN
Ah, yes. 
I don’t think it’s at all bad—it’s not the City Opera House, but then, what is?—but those windows!
Eight black windows like spider eyes is hardly a cozy aesthetic.  
Why, I do believe that house is watching me.
But I really don’t think it means me any harm.

CLIFF
Wait till somebody chases you off a cliff. After that, nothing is harmless.

PLAGUE
I’m harmless. 

CLIFF 
Hardly. 

PLAGUE
I’m practically invisible. My skin is cold Lucite. Light passes through me.
When the city ate my mother, bones-first, when her skin sagged to the sidewalk like a bottomed-out paper sack, all I could do was stand by and watch.
She never saw me. She didn’t even know me when she died.
Sometimes I think my own lover would no longer know me.
He might mistake me for a waterfall, a glass coffin, the blur of his tears.

GARDEN
He might surprise you. 

CLIFF
I hate surprises. They’re like elevators cut loose from their cables. 

GARDEN
Where’s your sense of adventure? 

CLIFF
It fell off a cliff.

GARDEN
You know, speaking of heights . . . 
 I’ve been wanting to climb the the wall and sneak into that house over yonder.
I sometimes catch glimpses of a life behind the windows. 
Someone preparing a feast. 
A fine gentleman, decanting French wine, singing Italian love songs.
Gluck’s opera, do you know it?  Paris wooing Helen of Troy? 


O del mio dolce ardor
Bramato oggetto,
L’aura che tu respiri,
Alfin respiro.
Ovunque il guardo io giro,
Le tue vaghe sembianze
Amore in me dipinge:Il mio pensier si finge
Le più liete speranze;
E nel desio che così
M’empie il petto
Cerco te, chiamo te,
spero e sospiro.

PLAGUE
We all know how that story ended.
Doomed Paris. Doomed Helen.
Doomed Troy, and all the toy soldiers of that war.
Perhaps it’s the same for the man in the house. 
And for his lover, who hears his singing.

GARDEN
But that song! That longing. “Thee I call! Thee I seek!” It moves me.
Like the house itself is sighing for a gentler time.
Like a warm lilac breeze in the dark of November.

PLAGUE
There was no gentler time. The singer knows that. But he likes to pretend.

GARDEN
He has the soul of an artist. Like his mother. 

CLIFF
I don’t think you should go to that house. 
The man in there—what if he’s one of the ones who drove me off the cliff? 
What if he carries that sickness that eats you from the bones out? 
No, the house is too dangerous. The garden will protect you. Us.

PLAGUE
Don’t you understand? 
The garden is part of the house. 
The house is part of the city. 
The city was built out of the cliff that killed you.
Nothing can protect her. Or him. Or any of us.
And it’s too late for me anyway. I’m hardly here at all. 

GARDEN
I’m looking right at you. 

PLAGUE
You’re looking right through me. It’s not the same thing. 

GARDEN 
That’s right. I’m seeing right through you. 
Right to your bones. You are still here. We all are. 

PLAGUE
Whoever we are. 

CLIFF
I am poor smashed Icarus in the garden of the damned!

PLAGUE
I am Pestilence in barbarous attire.

GARDEN
I am the heir of the Last Stately House, and my son is waiting there. 

PLAGUE
Your son? 

GARDEN
Your lover. He is waiting there for you. 
He is filling your wine cup. 
He is singing for you.

PLAGUE
For me? 

GARDEN
He’s a tenor. Like his father.

PLAGUE
Yes. I know. 
He was born between the matinee and the evening performance, he told me. 

GARDEN
What else did he tell you? 

PLAGUE
That when I come to him at last, he will press his lips to my glass lips, and fill me with his wine.

GARDEN
He always was a poet.

CLIFF
What are you waiting for? Why don’t you run to him?

PLAGUE
I am afraid he will not see me. That his song will echo through my hollowness.
That he will turn his back on me, and walk away into the city, where I cannot follow.

CLIFF
If he does, you must not chase him.

GARDEN
If he does, you must stand very still and sing him back.

CLIFF
There are ways over the city. Ways above it.

GARDEN
Once you get the knack of flight, you’ll never walk anywhere again.

CLIFF
Even I had wings once. Maybe I’d still have them if I’d gone forward, not back.

PLAGUE
I never had any wings.

GARDEN
Well, none of us need wings to get over that wall. It’s not a very tall wall, after all. 
Stand on my shoulders.
I have a gardener’s shoulders, scarred and smelling of roses.

CLIFF
When you get there, will you tell us what you see?

PLAGUE
Listen.
When I get there, I’ll haul you up, too.

CLIFF
Me? 

PLAGUE
Do you think I’d leave you behind? 

CLIFF
But I’m . . . broken. 

GARDEN
We won’t forget you. 

PLAGUE
I’m bringing you with me, so you can see for yourself.

They climb the wall.

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