Jean Rotrou : "Le Veritable Saint Genest", a Baroque Masterpiece


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The Play’s the Thing and Le Véritable Saint Genest

 

the idea, or simile, that ‘Life is a Play’ has a very long history. It can be traced back at least to the Romans of the second and third century AD. At its basis is the notion, or rather feeling, that life in this world is  “not only unimportant [but] also in some sense not quite real”. (The quotation is taken from E.R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, a book I cannot recommend too highly.)

            In what is still a somewhat obscure passage in The Republic Plato compares life in this world to the situation of chained prisoners in a cave. It has been suggested that this potent image is based on the actual experience of initiates to the Eleusinian Mysteries, a sort of elite Freemasons’ Society of the time, and it is quite conceivable (though by no means certain) that Plato himself was an initiate as a young man. The rough idea seems to be that the chained persons have their backs to the light (which either comes from outside the cave itself or from a blazing fire behind them), and the shapes they see in front of them are shadows cast on the wall of the cave, not the actual puppet figures which are being manipulated by someone standing behind them, and of whose presence they are unaware. In their ignorance and delusion, these prisoners take these shapes on the wall for the real thing. The main aim of philosophy (lit. ‘love of wisdom’) should be, according to Plato, to enlighten the wretched prisoners in the cave — the mass of humanity — as to the true state of affairs in the universe and beyond. It is striking that modern physics and mathematics, which owe a lot to Plato indirectly if not directly, tell us that ‘reality’ at its most irreducible level, that of quarks and quantum vacuums and space-time warps, is quite different from the ‘reality’ we perceive through our senses — a difference that is greater, not lesser, than the ‘reality’ the chained prisoners are familiar with compared to the Platonic daylight outside the cave.

            There are two main features about a play, or other ‘realistic’ art form : firstly, there is the conflict between ‘illusion’ and reality which is all the more telling if the play is really persuasive, and, secondly, there is the situation of the actors and actresses who are not free to do what they wish. Plato is perhaps the first prominent thinker to have specifically connected these two features and made the connection the central plank of his philosophy. It is precisely because what we fondly call ‘life’ is such a persuasive illusion, a master play if ever there were one, that we, as living beings, are not free for much the same reason as a madman is not free. For the true ‘reality’ is not down here, but is the world of eternal Forms of which this world is a pale copy. Only the philosopher, the man who has ‘seen through’ the physical world, is capable of ‘free’ action. Humanity  is doomed, not because of any deep-rooted character flaw such as pride or disobedience — this is the Judaeo/Christian approach —  but because of ‘wrong judgement’ about what is truly real. This is close to the Buddhist position. But, during his own lifetime, this otherworldly side of Plato did not have much effect : Athenian society was still too buoyed up with its own successes to turn away from physical reality which it was beginning to master through technology, rational thought and mathematics. 

            From about the time of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (who appears in the opening scene of the film Spartacus) a general feeling sets in, amongst pagans and Christians alike, that life in this world is hopelessly inadequate and not worthy of much more respect than the antics of puppies fighting over a bone — the simile comes from the Diaries of Marcus Aurelius himself.  What is new  is not the idea that human society is bad, but that it is also in some sense insubstantial —  the ‘substance of a dream’. This view of the world  contributed to the eventual triumph of Christianity since the latter placed ‘true reality’ in the afterlife, but it certainly did not originate there, indeed many of the early Christian writers, such as Gregory of Nyassa and Saint Augustine, were trained in the ‘pagan’ universities and imbibed a lot of their otherworldliness from strictly pagan sources. The ‘illusionist’ view of the world, though it left a strong mark on the development of Christianity, never quite became orthodox doctrine since, ephemeral and imperfect though it might be, the physical world was nonetheless created by God and thus retained something divine within it, as did mankind.

            The Renaissance took up the theme of ‘Life is a Play’ but with a considerably reduced belief in the afterlife. The prolific Spanish playwright Calderon wrote a very effective play entitled Life is a Dream  where the protagonist actually has considerable difficulty in distinguishing between what is real and what is dreamed — because he is suddenly transported from his mountain prison to the King’s palace for a single day, and then transported back again, all this without being told what is going on. But Calderon is no Platonist : he is much more concerned with human behaviour in the real world down here than with any supposed contrast between deceiving physical reality and what is ‘ultimately real’. The most we get is the rather too pat ‘argument’ that there is no foolproof way of  distinguishing between dream and reality : it is all on a level with Chuang-tzu’s parable of the man who dreamed he was a butterfly and, on waking up, could not decide whether he was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man. But, in point of fact, outside very special circumstances like being under the influence of hallucinatory drugs, or when people play tricks on us, we do not have much difficulty in distinguishing between dream and reality : if we did life would be a good deal more dangerous than it actually is. It is also perhaps worth remarking that it is not possible for an actor, at any rate in the theatre, to get completely carried away by the part he or she plays, since, if he did this, he might well actually kill someone for real, or more likely fall off the stage and break his leg.   

               Shakespeare uses the theatre simile a good deal in his plays, but never to contrast illusion and reality in the truly metaphysical or Buddhist sense. Jacques’ famous speech “All the world’s a stage…”, memorable though it is, is essentially a put-down on life, not a philosophic statement. And Hamlet does not arrange for the staging of The Murder of Gonzago to show people that life, and the world, is unreal, or that ‘art is truer than ordinary reality’ : he has the play put on for a specific, pragmatic, purpose, namely to reveal the truth about his father’s death. The contrast is not between the sequence of events narrated in The Murder of Gonzago and the actual sequence of events that led to the death of Hamlet’s father, but between the action of the play-within-the-play and what most people think happened in reality, which is quite another matter. In The Tempest Shakespeare comes closer to tackling the Illusion/Reality issue via the character of Prospero who is supposed to be a magician, that is, a person who can create his own reality. But it is obvious that Shakespeare, a man of this world if ever there was one, does not believe in magic as certain near contemporaries of his such as Dr. Dee definitely did.


            The forgotten seventeenth century French neo-classical drama, Le Véritable Saint Genest, which I came across more or less by chance, is a far subtler and more suggestive treatment of the Illusion/Reality theme than anything the Renaissance or Elizabethan period produced, and has been rightly compared to the work of twentieth century authors such as Pirandello — as far as I am concerned, it goes far beyond them.

            What makes Rotrou’s play so striking is that it recounts a double martyrdom, the miraculous conversion to Christianity and subsequent  disgrace of a famous Roman actor, Genest, together with the earlier martyrdom of a prominent public official, Adrian. The two martyrdoms are fitted one within the other, like the painted wooden figures given as presents in Eastern Europe at Eastertime, since the actor, Genest, supposedly becomes converted while playing the part of Adrian in a play put on before the Emperor himself — an extreme case of an actor getting carried away by his theatrical persona.

            The occasion for the ‘play within the play’ is the forthcoming marriage of Diocletian’s daughter, Valerie, to the conquering general and co-Emperor, Maximin. The famous actor, Genest, is summoned and asked to provide an entertainment for the Court; rather rashly as it turns out, he decides to stage a play relating the martyrdom of an official, Adrian, for which Maximin himself was responsible. The real Maximin will thus shortly see an actor representing himself on the stage — “César à César sera représenté” . Genest’s odd  choice of play for the festive occasion  — he specifically rejects the idea of a comedy which would seem more appropriate — and his bold decision to actually ‘double up’ one of the spectators and get him to watch himself, soon unleashes disaster.  This is perhaps the ‘original sin’, as it were,  of the entire action, as if, by messing about with layers of illusion and reality from the very beginning, the actor Genest has broken a sacred law and must pay the penalty. At first,  however, all is well since Maximin readily accepts the idea of  seeing himself on the stage :

 

                        “Oui, crois qu’avec plaisir je serai spectateur

                        En la même action dont je serai l’Acteur ».

 

                        (‘ Yes, of course, I shall be happy to view as a spectator

                        the same events in which I was an actor’)

 

            In Act II we are behind the scenes, as it were : Genest chats with the Decorator, arranges his costume and reads through his script. He, as the leader of the troupe, plays Adrian, the future martyr, and, left alone, he recites  the stirring speech when Adrian, a high Roman official and in the past relentless persecutor of the Christians, steels himself to declare publicly his own conversion to Christianity, well aware that this will almost certainly lead to his death. Genest’s actual wife, Marcelle, the leading lady of the troupe, interrupts his private rehearsal to complain about the unwelcome attentions of hangers-on back-stage. Genest observes that, most likely, she does not find all this attention as objectionable as she claims, and asks her to read out one of her set speeches from the ‘play within the play’ which she does, much to his satisfaction. He then asks to be left alone once more to carry on practising and Marcelle leaves.

           


            We now reach Act II Scene IV, the crucial scene on which all the subsequent events depend. According to Aristotle, every well constructed tragedy should have a peripeteia, a ‘reversal’ or ‘turnabout’ when the whole play suddenly takes a completely different and usually unexpected course. Generally, the peripeteia  comes a lot later, since we are concerned with private emotions — a form of religious conversion — it is appropriate that the ‘turnabout’ occurs much earlier, since it needs time to work itself through the actor’s inner processes before being translated into action. A less skilful dramatist would have had the actor Genest converted, or at least knocked down, on the spot in the manner of Saint Paul and in the earlier Jesuit play, from which Rotrou took the idea, it seems that this is what happens. But Rotrou has Genest little by little feeling himself getting carried away, fighting against this and attempting to reason himself out of the situation. Moreover, Genest is a sincere pagan who believes, as Diocletian and Maximilian do, that Christianity is wrong and adds piquancy to the situation by  actually appealing to the Roman gods to come to his aid :

 

      « Dieux, prenez contre moi ma défense et la vôtre;

      ………….je me trouve être un autre ;

      Je feins moins Adrian que je ne le deviens… » 

 

            [‘O gods, defend me against myself, defend yourselves,

              …..  I feel myself turning into someone else,

            And instead of playing Adrian I am becoming him.’]

 

            He tells himself that, as an actor, he is used to the sensation of taking on a strange identity, but suspects there is something more at work here. Feeling himself more and more attracted to Christian ideas, he is horrified by the ‘sacrilege’ — in much the same way as a sincere Christian would be horrified by a sudden attraction to another belief. He rallies and tells himself firmly that he must stick to his professional role — “Il s’agit d’imiter , et non de devenir”  (‘My job is to represent someone and not to become him’).

            At this point, Genest hears a voice from above which exhorts him to continue in his role, and promises God’s help if he does so. This ‘role’ is not the theatrical one of the play within the play, but Genest’s future role as a martyr, or, if you like, it is both at once. Genest is astonished, at first impressed but immediately afterwards he returns to his rational self and concludes it must be someone playing a trick on him — “Quelqu’un s’est voulu diverter par cette feinte voix”. But the effects of this voice and its message are, he has to admit, undeniable. In total confusion he prays once more to the (pagan) gods to come to his aid, but amusingly ‘hedges his bets’, if  one can put it that way, by simultaneously praying to the Christian God to show his hand more clearly.

            At this point the Stage Decorator enters to light the candles for the show. The spell is broken — for the moment — and, with delicious irony, Genest mocks himself but at the same time says more than he realizes :

 

      « …  Tu m’as distrait d’un rôle glorieux

      Que je représentais devant la Cour des Cieux… »

 

      (‘You have distracted me from a glorious role I was 

      playing before the Court of Heaven’).


            Note that Genest compares the ‘play’ that is about to be put on in front of Diocletain’s Court with the ‘play’ which is Genest’s earthly life and which is being observed by the Court of Heaven. This is baroque indeed !  For look at the boxes within boxes. We, as spectators in the Parisian theatre, are watching an actor preparing to put on a play before the Roman Court. However, everything that takes place is a sort of ‘play’ that is being performed in front of a heavenly audience, an audience, moreover, which intervenes in the sort of way in which a Prompter intervenes in an actual play if he feels the actor is departing from his lines.

            Overriding the terrestrial Illusion/Reality conflict, there is the Christian/Platonic dualism which places our ‘real’ lives in the beyond. Later on, Genest makes this point specifically :

 

“Ce monde périssable et sa gloire frivole

Est une comédie où j’ignorais mon rôle ; »

 

(‘This ephemeral  world with its vainglory

Is a comedy in which I mistook my role’)          

                    

            Rotrou was writing at a period when there was intense religious feeling in certain circles in France : it was the era of Saint Vincent de Paul, also of the Jansenists at Port-Royal. Blaise Pascal, who originally made his name as a mathematician and was something of a freethinker in his youth, actually did undergo a sudden conversion rather like that of Genest, though he did not hear a  voice from the sky.

            When Genest actually does appear on the stage representing Adrian on his inevitable course towards martyrdom, the Court audience is full of praise for his extraordinarily vivid acting. There is an Interval while the audience comment on the performances, the play within the play recommences and leads up to the scene when Adrian declares his indomitable Christian faith and defies the Emperor. At this point, to the dismay of the rest of the cast, and the Prompter, Genest steps out of his role and makes a public declaration of his (Genest’s) conversion to Christianity. The audience at first thinks this is still part of the play, but it seems to be going on too long, Diocletian gets increasingly irritated and eventually ‘the penny drops’ and the audience realizes that Genest really means what he says. In fury, Diocletian has him thrown into prison and threatens him with torture and death if he does not recant. In the ‘play within the play’, Adrian’s wife, Natalie (played by Genest’s wife, Marcelle) visits Adrian in prison. She turns out to be a secret Christian herself and, far from trying to deflect him from his course, she exhorts him to be brave and prepare himself for the glory of martyrdom. This scene has, as its deformed mirror image, the scene towards the end of the (real) play when Marcelle visits Genest in prison and makes a desperate attempt to change his mind. She considers Christianity a low-down sort of religion and dismissed Christ as a criminal that no self-respecting Roman would worship. More to the point, she appeals to his responsibilities towards his wife and his troupe, since they are threatened with ruin because of his crazy behaviour. But Genest is inflexible and goes to his death with serenity. Maximilian sums up the whole sorry tale from his point of view, leaving us once again with the bittersweet theme of Illusion/Reality


« Il a bien voulu, par son impiété,

Par une feinte, en mourant, faire une vérité »

 

 (‘In his impiety, his aim was, by dying, to

turn  play-acting into reality’).

 

 

 

 Note on Jean Rotrou

 

Jean Rotrou was, during his lifetime, a highly successful dramatist and quite a prolific one — he wrote over  thirty-five plays in the space of twenty years. Surprisingly, considering the complexity and genuine religious feeling of Le Véritable Saint Genest, Geoffrey Brereton, though he praises the play in his French Tragic Drama in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, presents Rotrou the man as an ambitious and opportunistic person.  

            Since the seventeenth century this minor masterpiece has been almost completely neglected : it was only put on twice in Paris during the entire nineteenth century. In 1963 the Théâtre de Paris staged it and it received a mixed reception. 

                      

             

              

                       

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The Unities and Neo-Classical Drama


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french neo-classical tragedy could not be more out of sync with contemporary tastes and practices. Most of the successful neo-classical French plays were written with scrupulous respect for the so-called Three Unities, Unity of Plot, Unity of Place and Unity of Time. The first meant that everything had to be concentrated on the main action, so no sub-plot and no interesting minor characters; the second meant that all the action had to take place at a single spot, for example the corridor of a palace as in Racine’s Britannicus, and the third meant that the action should ideally take place in ‘real time’ (the time of  the actual performance), or at least not exceed the duration of a single day. As if this were not enough, two further principles, that of vraisemblance, or ‘credibility’, and bienséance, or ‘propriety’, excluded miraculous and fantastic events, and meant that all violence and lovemaking (including kissing) had to take place offstage. It is hardly surprising that French neo-classical tragedy, contrasting as it does so flagrantly with Shakespeare and Elizabethan tragedy generally, has never been popular in this country and these days is even put on less and less in its country of origin.

            Although it is fair to say that the seventeenth century French critics, especially Chapelain and Boileau, did go somewhat further than Aristotle, it is quite untrue  to claim, as many contemporary literary critics do, that ‘neo-classicism’ was a post-Renaissance French invention that has little connection with the theory and practice of the ancients. The vast majority of extant Greek tragedies do take place either in real time or within the space of a single day or night, and the action is almost always restricted to a single spot. And in Greek drama there can be  no question of a subplot since even extending the number of characters on stage at any one time to three was, at the time, viewed as a ‘modern’ innovation  — though admittedly there is the Chorus. As for bienséance, violent actions like Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon invariably take place offstage and there can be no question of Hollywood clinches, since, amazingly, there are no love scenes at all in any extant Greek tragedies. Aristotle does mention credibility and criticises severely plays which rely on improbable or miraculous interventions — though the fact that he needs to say this shows that there were certain plays that violated the rule.  All in all, French neo-classical theory is simply a tightening up of rules and principles that were very much in existence in the classical era. (Comedy and the Roman theatre are another matter.)    

            In my youth I shared this lack of interest in French Neo-classical Drama  and, during all the years I spent in Paris in the Sixties, never went once to the Comédie Française to see a single play by Racine or Corneille. We are today so used to seeing plays and films which take place in any number of completely different locations, have subplots and minor characters that are often more engaging than the protagonist and main plot, not to speak of the present-day appetite for completely unnecessary explicit sex and violence, that adhering to the Unities and Proprieties of 17th century French theatre seems almost suicidal.

            But when I came to write a full length tragedy of my own, The Chosen One (see the website www.brimstonepress.co.uk), I found to my surprise that, without meaning to, I had written a play which scrupulously observed the Three Unities and, on top of that, the Principles of Credibility and Propriety — since the violent end takes place offstage.

            In the right hands and with the right subject, the unities give a claustrophobic intensity to the action which Shakespearian theatre and contemporary cinema cannot rival. Othello, a domestic tragedy with few characters, is the nearest Shakespeare ever got to writing a neo-classical  drama. It is, however, weakened by having the First Act take place in Venice, rather than Cyprus (where the rest of the play is situated), and by giving too much  importance to  the opposition of Desdemona’s father to her marriage, since this is neither here nor there from the point of view of the main plot.  

            Casting my eyes over the shelf in my library devoted to plays, I come across several  modern plays which adhere more or less to the unities, probably without intending to. The action of  Journey’s End, by R.C. Sherriff, about the only World War I drama ever put on today, all takes place in a dugout on the Western front between Tuesday and Thursday morning. There are no female characters, no subplot, and almost everything turns around the relationship between Stanhope, the Commanding Officer, and the young recruit, Raleigh, who knew him at public school and idolises him. A contemporary Hollywood film would almost certainly miss the brooding intensity of this disturbing play, by interspersing the scenes in the dugout with gory bayonet charges and idyllic periods of leave at home, or, more likely, visits to French prostitutes between two spells at the front. This play is about the nearest one can get to ancient Greek tragedy since there is a frightful sense of fatality throughout : the real central character of the play, as someone said, is not Stanhope or Raleigh but the war itself whose presence is always felt —  and for most of the time heard as well in the form of interminable gunfire — just as the Trojan war is the main protagonist in tragedies such as Ajax, or indeed the Iliad itself.   

            Also, I find on the same shelf, Dangerous Corner, by J.B. Priestley, one of his best plays which, like the better known An Inspector Calls, takes place in the drawing room of a house after dinner during the space of a single evening. Although there is a death, it happened some time previously and the play consists entirely of increasingly angry arguments amongst the middle-class people who knew the dead man and which, bit by bit, reveal a whole lot of things that were originally utterly submerged. Without either fighting or lovemaking, the play is gripping, even intolerably so. 

            Again, coming across a copy of the remarkable and unjustly forgotten play, Das Heilige Experiment (English title The Strong Are Lonely), by Fritz Hochwalder, I see that the action takes place during a single day, July 16, 1767, at the College of the Jesuit Fathers, Buenos Aires. The compression is all the more striking since not only does this single day decide the fate of the leading characters but that of the 150,000 Indian inhabitants of an entire country, present-day Paraguay. The same historical event, the deliberate dismantling of the Jesuit South American utopia by the Spanish authorities, is the basis of the film, The Mission, starring Jeremy Irons, though in the film it is the Portuguese, and not the Spanish, who are made responsible. Though I would not want to miss the magnificent scenery of the film and the harrowing ending, the moral dilemma of the Jesuit leader is much more acute, and in consequence much more moving, in the play, precisely because everything is concentrated on it. There is also, unlike the film, no love interest or subplot.


            To let slip the opportunities of flashback, spectacular scenery and contrasting settings would seem perverse in the case of cinema. I cannot offhand think of a film which obeys the unities completely but the black-and-white films of the Thirties and Fifties came much closer than films do today. Dispersion, not intensity, is currently the order of the day and the action drama cum thriller, which of necessity flouts all the neo-classical rules, has for a long time been the dominant genre in cinema. Odd Man Out comes close to the neo-classical ideal since all the action  takes place during a single night in Belfast and everything is concentrated on the predicament of the wounded IRA leader, brilliantly played  by James Mason, wandering about the dismal streets trying vainly to escape the police on his heels. Training Day, starring Denzil Washington, takes place during a single day. A good three-quarters of Casablanca takes place in Rick’s Bar, and there are doubtless one or two other examples.    

            French 17th century tragedy is closer to opera than present-day theatre. Audiences of the time obviously enjoyed the lengthy and, to our ears, thoroughly undramatic monologues delivered by virtually immobile actors and actresses in much the same way as we enjoy arias by Pavarotti and Domingo. They also quite clearly responded favourably to the extremely elevated moral tone of most of the tragedies : virtue (of a certain type) actually excited the audiences of the time, ‘turned them on’, if you like, in much the same way as sexual scenes and violence excite contemporary viewers. A typical theme of neo-classical drama is the conflict between honour and personal desire, duty and natural inclination. We are all inheritors of the Romantics who dictated, once and for all, that emotion is always right and that law and order, inasmuch as it goes against instinct, is always wrong. But the characters of French neo-classical drama generally choose duty and honour : even when they transgress social rules and customs, as  Phaedra does, they do so unwillingly. They invariably  prefer death to dishonour. E.M. Forster famously wrote, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country”. But, is this really a good principle?  I think not. Many people in France during the German Occupation were precisely faced with this very dilemma and the issue has become contemporary once more because of  terrorism. Society collapses into chaos without a moral code of some sort and all moral codes involve self-sacrifice.

Besieged : A Psychologcal Thriller in One Act


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                        The first floor room of a detached house with much of the furniture removed or pushed to one corner. On one side, or directly facing the audience, is a French window perhaps with a small balcony on it. The curtains are drawn in the room and a machine-gun is set-up close to the window ready to fire. Two men of middle age and a young girl are watching from the window. One of the men is tall, well-built and vigorous but nervy. The second man is slighter, calm and steady. The girl is about twenty.  She looks somewhat the worse for wear and holds her hands awkwardly together — her wrists are in fact tied together with Elastoplast.

                        Sound of car starting up and garage doors being raised.

 

McGee.   He’s driving out, not too fast, he’s got no reason to be in a rush, remember.  Two police come up to tell him to stop and there’s a second car behind them. Kevin looks really fed up as well he might, he’s just an ordinary bloke just come back during the dinner hour and he doesn’t particularly like policemen. He starts arguing with them, that’s the stuff, Kevin… Then he gets out after all and hands over his papers. He’s playing it A1, couldn’t have done better myself. He looks a bit nervous by now as any ordinary citizen would do because the very fact of being stopped by the law and told to get out of your car makes you nervous, bound to  — some bloody raw recruit sent down by Higher Command would overdo it and start talking about football… (Grandly) An’ just like I said, they’re handing him his papers back and everyone becomes friendly. One of the specials makes a joke and looks up in our direction.  Kevin smiles a bit and shrugs his shoulders…

Carol.  (To the other man) And you said, David, —

David.  (Curtly) Shut up.  

McGee. What’s happening now? One of ’em’s crept up behind Kevin while he’s chatting and he just whips out his revolver and hits Kevin at the nape of the neck! He’s down! They’re all over him, all four of them, kicking and punching him… The filthy scum! (Lurches around) I’m not standing here watching Kevin being beaten up…

 

                        Sudden burst of gunfire from McGee.

 

David.  That was a damn fool thing to do. Now they know we’re armed.

McGee.  (To himself) Trouble is I fired at the whole bunch — should have aimed at one in particular… That’s cleared the decks anyhow. Cover the right side, David. (David does so.) Here, better have a scarf in case they use tear gas. (Throws him one and the two of them put them on.) You checked the back to see if it was mined, didn’t you, David?

David    Yes.

McGee     No sign of life out there… I know them lot, no guts, they don’t mind —  

David    (Raising voice) You should never have opened fire. Could have been just an ordinary patrol —

McGee.   No, no. They were looking for us. 

David.    You don’t know that. And now they’ve got Kevin.

McGee.   Kevin won’t tell them anything. He’s one of the old school. Anyway, he’s a got a dumb-dumb tablet. If they start knocking him around too much, he’ll put himself out.

David.    I would never have let him go. God, between the two of you…

McGee.   Thing is, David, I’m not like you, I just can’t sit here watching a good man being massacred. What do you think they’ll do now?

David     Nothing special. Just keep us pinned down and phone for reinforcements.

McGee.   Cowardly bastards. It’s early days yet, David… Those buggers don’t know who they’re up against, they don’t know who’s in command here. In fact I feel sorry for them…. I really do… (Looks out) Come on out, you bloody load of creeps.

 

                        David gets up and pulls McGee back from the window.

 

Voice Over     Whoever you are, come out with your hands above your heads. Nothing will happen to you. All of you inside the house, come out with your hands above your heads.

David  Don’t say or do anything. Our only card is they maybe still don’t know who we are.

Voice Over     Come out with your hands above your heads and nothing will happen to you. Do you hear me? Come out with your hands above your heads.

 

                        Pause. Dead silence.

 

McGee.   Look, you stay here, David, and man the front, I’m going to check up on the back and get some more weaponry.  We’ll give ’em something to remember us by, David, I promise you that…. Blow up half the damn county if I have to. I’ve been in spots worse than this…

                       

                        McGee goes out hurriedly. David, frowning, examines the front and checks the machine-gun.

 

David  (Without looking at Carol) When things start hotting up, just run out with a white flag — O.K.?

Carol     Yes…OK … (Gathering courage) But… they won’t shoot me since I’m  just a girl hostage —

David    (Raising voice slightly)  Grab a towel or something and wave it above your head and go out — do you hear me?

Carol   Yes, but… Anyway, I’m quite sure it won’t come to that —

David  What’s the matter with you? You want to be put under?

Carol   The, well, the thing is…we’ve been together for some time already… I sort of feel part of it…I want to stay to the bitter end — well, the end whatever it is…

David  (Shrugs) Please yourself.

Carol   Anyway I couldn’t hold up a white flag.  (Holds up her hands and we see that they are tied together)

David  Oh, if that’s all it is. (Takes out knife and cuts the elastoplast.) 

Carol   (Surprised)  Thanks.   (Slight pause) You aren’t afraid I’ll do something against you and Julius now that I’ve got my hands free?

David    No.

                        Pause while David examines gun.

Carol   But what I can’t understand is why you don’t phone through for reinforcements — you’re not exactly strong on numbers, are you?

David  Not exactly, no.

Carol  Well, why don’t you phone through? Too proud — that it?

David   (Abstractedly, while doing something with gun) No — that might bother Julius but not me.  (Pause) We can’t phone. They’ve changed the wave-length.

Carol      You get given a wave-length for each operation? (David nods)  Yes, but when we were in the car you were speaking to Higher Command, I heard you, they told you to come here…

David  Yes, but then we got separated from the other car, I wonder why, and since then…

Carol   They’ve changed the wave-length?  But it was your lifeline….  You mean they changed it deliberately…? But they couldn’t have… you’re their men… Julius was put in charge of the operation…

David    (Violently) Yes, but it’s the other car that has McCann. That’s who everyone’s interested in — not you. You should never have got picked up at all. It was just because you happened to be on the premises. Bloody girl — what the hell got into you? You couldn’t have picked a worse time.

Carol   (Coolly) Oh, we don’t pick the time and place — we really don’t. 

David    (Gestures to Carol to keep back. Looks out) Hello, what’s this?  No, it’s all right. (Turning to face Carol)  From the point of view of Higher Command, it couldn’t have turned out better. If the police follow us here all to the good. They’ve got time to put McCann away somewhere special.

Carol   So… you don’t think Higher Command will do anything?

David    I’m dead sure they won’t. They may even have planned this. 

Carol   But that means you’re…

David  Yes, it does. Like calves in a cattle-truck. Listen, why don’t you go into the kitchen and make us some tea?

Carol   Oh, all right.

 

                        McGee comes back into the room his arms full of weaponry. He selects a Kalashnikov and checks it.  

 

McGee     Yes, David, we’ve got a fairly good defensive position here, David, there’s enough semi-automatics and Stens down there to stock a small army. 

            Trouble is…

David  We’re not a small army.

McGee   You know, David, even if we had got through to Higher Command they wouldn’t have sent us anyone. Higher Command isn’t what it used to be. If I was on Higher Command and I knew good men like Kevin and yourself were in some sort of trouble, I’d throw in all I’d got. I’d start a bloody war if need be. You listening to me, David?

David   (Picking up one of the semi-automatics) God, this is a Larsen FN — I thought this model went out at the time of the Falklands.

McGee   It’s still a pretty good weapon, David. It’s what I’m used to. I’ve been handling guns like that since I was in short pants. (Slight pause)  You know, I’m wondering whether we shouldn’t make a dash for it before anyone else gets here. We drive the girl in front of us at the end of a Sten –what about that?

David   You’ve seen too many Westerns. Could have her dash out to cause a diversion, I suppose, and then we make a run by the back.

McGee   What — through the minefield?

David  There’s supposed to be a safeway. Once we’re through we blow up the whole property.

McGee    Hum, too dicey. Anyway it’s not my style.

David  Not your style!

McGee   Julius McGee doesn’t show his back to anyone. And he’s in command here.

David  (Looking hard at McGee) We’re not using the girl as a shield — get me?

McGee (Shakes his head)  I don’t understand you, David, I really don’t. Where is she now by the way?

David  Making tea. 

McGee  How come she’s making tea with her hands tied?

David     I untied her.

McGee   You what? Listen, David, I don’t mind telling you there’s people in the Organisation — hey! what’s that? There’s some movement to the left —

David  No, it’s nothing.

 

            Carol comes back in but the two men do not see her.  She has a tray, which she puts down on a small table. She has a megaphone in one hand, holds it to her mouth and makes a noise. McGee and David turn round abruptly. She salutes with one hand.

 

Carol   Higher Command just spoke to me on the radio and asked me to make you two men a cup of tea.

 

                        McGee and David look at her with annoyance. David takes his tea but Julius waves it away.

 

McGee   (Looking out) They’re all as good as gold. Wonder what the hell  they’re doing at this minute.

David   Playing cards probably. Time’s no object to them.

McGee   Filthy scum! Doubt if they know one end of a gun from the other. (Raising voice) You still out there or you had enough already? Didn’t they teach you how to hold a rifle in the School Corps? Be careful of the kick — might break yer bloody arm off yer shoulders.

David   (Leading McGee back) For God’s sake, keep back, can’t you?

McGee   If I was in charge out there I’d make ’em move double-quick. Reminds me of when I smoked out that nest of Loyalists — I didn’t waste time sitting around, I got right on with it.

David     (Coldly) If I was out there I’d do just what they’re doing. They’re trying to wear us down and you’re falling for it. You never heard of strategy?

McGee  Strategy my arse — my strategy is blasting right into ’em.

David    How the hell you’re still alive after all these years beats me.

McGee   Oh, don’t you worry about me, David, Julius McGee will still be in command of operations in ten years time. They can’t get members of the Organisation to lead from the front like I do, it’s pathetic what these recruits are like these days, I wouldn’t let ’em in — we’ve got a fighting tradition to keep up. Barring the SAS and maybe the Legion, we’re the best fighting men in Europe, if they had a war on their plate, they’d come to people like Julius McGee on their hands and knees begging him to take a commission. Hey! come up here, David — you reckon that’s the corner of a man’s uniform behind that tree on the right there?

Carol   (Coming up) Here, let me look — I’ve got eyes like a hawk.

 

                        David pushes her away roughly.

 

David    No, it’s a bit of blue plastic.

McGee   Yes, so it is, I can see that now. Bah! you know what, when it comes to the point they probably won’t attack at all, they don’t mind setting on Kevin five to one but making a frontal attack on the Regional Headquarters of the Real IRA, that’s a very different sort of ball game. .

David  They’re waiting for the SAS, there’s no need for them to attack. Actually, they might not be police anyway — could be Provisionals.

McGee   In that case we’re all right.

David  Don’t know about that. If they’re Provisonals they won’t have their hands tied … And there won’t be any negotiation.

McGee  I’m glad to hear that. Because I’m not negotiating with anyone. Julius McGee is not a negotiating sort of fellow. Everybody who knows me knows that. I’m an all or nothing man.

David   Yes, yes. 

           

                        McGee walks about looking more and more agitated.   

 

David  Can’t you keep still, for God’s sake?

McGee   I’m not like you, David, I can’t just sit there. I’ve got to be doing something. (Slowly, glancing at Carol) Do I take it what you said a few moments ago is your last word on the subject?

David  Yes.

McGee  Well, so is it my last word. We’re not going out by no back door. That’s running away.

David  Seems a bit like a stalemate, then, doesn’t it?

McGee   That’s as may be. I shan’t forget this, David.

 

            McGee goes out. David shakes his head.

 

Carol   I hope I’m not causing you any trouble… Julius didn’t seem too pleased…

David  Wouldn’t have been much difference if you hadn’t been here. (Sound of gunfire.) What the hell’s that? Seemed to come from underneath.

Carol  (Rushing up to the window) It’s…

David  My God, I can’t believe this. He’s gone out, the bloody idiot’s gone out.

 

                        Further shots in the air.

 

 McGee  (From floor just in front of stage with a spot on him) Any of you still out there? Just thought I’d show you who’s in charge of operations here, Julius McGee — that name mean anything to you?  Listen to me carefully, folks, because I shan’t repeat this. I want the whole lot of you to come out of your rabbit burrows and thrown down your weaponry and walk right out into the middle of the drive with your hands above your heads. This is Julius McGee speaking, don’t ever forget that. Even though you can’t see them at the moment, you’re surrounded on all sides by picked men of the Real IRA. I can just by holding my hand up signal to one of our men to blow up the Town Hall, the local Ulster Constabulary, not to mention a couple of hospitals and a Primary School. And don’t imagine that you can negotiate with Higher Command because they’ve changed the wavelength ha! ha! didn’t expect that, did you? — any negotiating you want to do from now on you’ll have to do right here with Julius McGee, the greatest operational commander of the lot. Julius McGee is responsible to no one but himself, he doesn’t take no orders from Ulster, London, New York or Brussels, he’s right out on his own is —

 

                        Sound of a single shot and someone falling. Then dead silence.

           

Carol   Well, aren’t you going to at least go out and get him under cover?

David  No point. He’s dead. I can see that from here.

 

                        Rather mechanically he makes the sign of the cross.    

 

David     (To himself)  McGee dead! That man’s conducted scores of missions, kidnappings, gaol break outs, bank robberies… and then a single shot…from someone behind a tree.

Carol   Yes, I know — it seems somehow unfair. But life’s often like that, you know.

David    (Ignoring her) And all because he couldn’t stand waiting around!

Carol   Oh stop it — he’s paid for his mistake, hasn’t he?

David    (Still to himself) What the hell got into the man?

Carol   (Decisively) Oh it was an inner urge. There’s nothing you can do about things like that.

 

David looks out, then goes over to an armchair and slumps down.     

         Pause.

 

Carol   So…what are you going to do now?

David    (Smiles grimly) Nothing. They won’t attack just yet and before they do there’ll be announcements and things. (To himself) And to think the bloody man…

Carol   Who says you’d have done any better if you’d been operational commander in his place? Don’t you ever get uptight in a siege situation?

David    No, I don’t. I can wait them out. And then when they don’t expect it I make my move.

 

                                    Slight pause.

 

Carol   You’re a strange fish, aren’t you? Not at all like the other two. Why did you join the IRA in the first place — you don’t look like an IRA man to me.

David    Oh same sort of reason as everyone else. I saw Paisleyites beating up someone I knew.

Carol   But there must have been more to it than that — didn’t you believe in the cause?

David    Yes, at first I did.

Carol   But you don’t now?

David    Not particularly.

Carol   Well, hadn’t you better be making some plan of campaign?

David    No point. I just want to bring one or two of them down with me. With six men and as many hostages I could do something. But alone.

Carol   I’d say you give up too easily. Obviously you’ll never get out of here alive by brute force — so use guile instead. (David shrugs.) Of course, you could always give yourself up — you haven’t killed anyone yet. I’d say I was well-treated. You’d only get a couple of years.

David    No, no, my mind is made up. I’m not going back inside. Once they’re in here, I’ll blow up the house. (Shows control panel) They won’t take me alive.

Carol   But why? Because you feel you owe it to the Organisation?

David    I couldn’t care damn all about the Organisation.

Carol   So what’s the reason?

David   Oh, you couldn’t understand. I’m just, well, tired of everything. It’s in my bones, in my sweat, even in my piss. After twenty years of this kind of life you either go off your rocker like McGee or you’re washed up. (Violently) I wish I was in some place where you never even hear an Irish accent.

Carol   But if you feel like that, why didn’t you get out years ago?

             More dangerous to get out than stay in. They track you down.

Carol   Oh well, I’d say you’d have done better to have enlisted in the Foreign Legion, you can get out of that after five years.

David    Just stop talking about it, will you?

 
Carol goes to the window and sits down alongside the machine-gun.

 

Carol   Well, since you’ve decided to throw in the sponge I think I’d better stand guard in your place.(Looks out)  Nothing much going on out there, I must say. No sign of life at all. I doubt if there’s even an ant. Perhaps there’s nothing left alive! That would be a laugh, wouldn’t it! You wouldn’t have to go to prison because there aren’t any. Yes, I’m sure that’s it. We’re the last two people in the universe. And it’s a beautiful day, brilliant sunshine for once. It must be about three o’clock in the afternoon.

David  It’s the most dangerous time of the day.

Carol   Why do you say that?

David  I’ve often noticed it.

Carol   You’re just imagining it. There’s no particular time.

David  Yes, there is. In the morning everyone gets up full of high hopes about what might happen during the day, perhaps something that will change the whole course of your life, even the whole course of history. But then by about the middle of the afternoon — a bit before the middle of the afternoon — it’s quite obvious to everyone that nothing will happen at all, that you’ll be staring at the same stupid faces and the same dirty brick walls that you’ve stared at all your life. Now that’s a very terrifying thought and if at the same time the sun is shining and there’s a sort of promise of better things, just sending you up, and you’re beginning to get hot and tired and impatient, that’s the moment when you do something stupid and self-destructive for no reason at all.

Carol   Like Kevin making a run for it or McGee going out onto the balcony?  

David  Maybe, yes.
Carol   Oh, stop it, I don’t like the trend of this conversation.

(To be Continued) 

If you want to know what happens to David and Carol in the apparently hopeless siege situation, go to http://www.plays4theatre.com   and order “Besieged” by Sebastian Hayes, New Theatre Publications. You’ll be surprised at the ending!