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Semi-Farce in One Act
by Ken Lauter
Copyright © 2002 Ken Lauter
||An actor strongly
resembling Steven Berkoff
||An actress in her
20s or early 30s
||A London theatre,
filled with rabid Berkoff fans
stage except for three high-back, armless chairs at stage
center, facing out: spotlights on the chairs. Back
and side curtains up, revealing stage apparatus as
shadowy wings. Shakespeare (a green laurel wreath
on his head) and Berkoff enter crisply from opposite
sides, dressed identically in dark slacks and
jerseys. They bow slightly to each other and sit.
The spotlight on the third chair dims.
||Have you heard the news, Will?
Theyve restored the Globe?
||No! How does it look?
||Oh, beautiful! Sam and
Wanamaker worked their guts out on it. Now
theyve got corporate sponsors and some real
money. No need to worry on that score.
||Good, forsooth! But on some other
||Well, Will, I hate to bring it
up, really I do. Itll sound self-serving
and a bit conceited
||When was that ever a
problem for you, you vain beast. Say on!
||Right! Its not
the Globe? [He stands
abruptly, kicks his chair away, and strides back
and forth as he speaks] ... its
the bloody RSC! Will, brace yourself? the RSC
have gone down the toilet! Their Shakespeare
productions are terrible? dead, rote,
rotten. These are the straw men, codpieces
filled with straw! Do you like T.S. Eliot,
||Not as much as Eliot did. Or
Pound. Eliot went to hell when he ducked into the
Anglican Church. Pound was an anti-semite
traitor? Henry V wouldve chopped off his
head. But whats so bad about the RSC?
||Well, take Richard III at
the Barbican. So slow and stiff... with piss-green
lighting, and a sliding stage that rumbled out
and in like a huge iron tongue! Richard in
motley. He wasnt remotely fiendish... just boring!
I wept for you, Will... really I did.
in Stratford? even worse! I could not sit
through it. Their Thane of Cawdor had no balls or
nobility, their Lady Macbeth no crone-power or
menace. They spoke the lines like zombies... and
then played the porter as an over-the-top Irish
lush with a lisp. It was a nightmare Will. I left
after Act II? rather feed the bloody ducks out on
||That bad, eh? But whatve
you got against the ducks?
nothing! Its just that I cant stand
||Just kidding Steven! [Bringing the overturned chair
back next to his and motioning for Berkoff to
sit] Peace, sit you down! Were there,
mayhap, no meritorious RSC productions of the
Bard this season?
||Well, maaaaaybe. There was a
fine Comedy of Errors. And they did
Websters The White Devil? dark,
lusty. Gorgeously staged... and [rubbing his hands together in
delight] full of terror and despair!
the way, Will, why did the Jacobeans lose
your faith that, in spite of human evil, there
exists at least the possibility of good in
||Could it be something they
ate? The bloody food in England, you know!
it had something to do with the death
of Her Majesty, Most Gracious Sovereign, Queen
Elizabeth I. Once youve had a real queen
in charge, a mere king is bound to look bad. You
know, men usually fucketh things up right
royally. Its clear to me now (after four
centuries to rot and ponder it) that it
wasnt the shrew that needed taming? it was
that bastard Petruchio!
||Right! The gals have no need
to prove their balls are bigger than some other
blokes... Well, maybe Maggie Thatcher did.
But it wasnt a woman who thought up
Auschwitz, eh... Or the bomb.
[With a King and I delivery]
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
and Berkoff do a double take, looking off stage? then
shrug and pull their chairs together.
||And women didnt invent
fucking Disneyland either!
||You dont want to know.
stage, chairs, etc. Lights up low on silhouette cut outs
of Shakespeare and Berkoff in profile, facing each other.
The third chair is now brightly lit. From stage left,
wearing Mussolini suit & boots, Coriolanus staggers
in-- exhausted and bloodied, dragging his sword limply.
It makes a grinding hiss (amplified). Sweating and
panting, he puts his sword on the empty chair and circles
the cut outs, eying them ominously, while wiping his
bloody hands on his shirt.
||Well, well, well? take a look
at 'em! The PANSIES!
Ar-teeeeeeests! Yadda, yadda, yadda!
That's all they're good for... that's all
they are! Air. Wind. Farts!
don't care if it's Republican Rome, Elizabethan
England or the god-damned 20th Century? there's
only two kinds of guys. The ones who do
it and the ones who talk about
it! Guys like me [strutting around, puffing his
chest, etc.] ?and [pointing] pussies
Hell, would either of these bastards
have come in through the Corioli town gates with
me? Would they get in there where the
smoking sword-stuff gets done and you live or die
with a scream in your throat and some other guy's
hot gore splattered on your face? [Wiping his hands again] Go
through the gates? these two? [He walks over and stares into
their faces silently for a moment, then whispers
slowly at the audience.] Fat...
fucking... chance! [He
Hey, lemme tell you girls something.
The Jacobeans? They didn't [in falsetto]
"lose their faith." They saw the
truth and put it in your face and if you can't
take it, well then? too fucking bad for you,
Even that Old Maid, Alfie Tennyson...
he said it "Nature red in tooth... [baring his teeth and holding up
one hand in front of his face, fingers spread
claw-like] ... and claw."
It's MOTHER NATURE, baby! If
you don't fight for a tit in the litter, you
don't get one. Get used to it. Grow
up. Be [growling]
Now, Master Shakespeare there, maybe he
learned little Latin and less Greek? but he
learned enough to make him a pussy! So I
never really expected much from him!
But aw, Jeez, [tearfully
Oh, such great, bloom'n expectations for
him we had once, now didn't we! Knew his
way round a knife, once. Bagged birds with
the best of 'em once, he did! [Macho growl] Yeah... ONCE!
Yes Little Stevie could well and truly kick
ass, once upon a time. And yet, with all
that lovely amateur training among the East End
crew, you'd think he'd a turned out better.
Become a professional? like me.
Oh, his plays have the right stuff,
all right... that Mike and Les... They
could've been in my legions! They would've
come through the gates! Lovely lads.
Scrappers. Knifers. Men. Spot
[Snapping out of
his reverie, wiping a tear away]
It's sad, really. You know what's wrong
with Berkoff, don't you? [Leans down to the cut-out's ear
and shouts] 'E READS TOO MUCH FOOKIN'
SHAKESPEARE, THAT'S WHAT!
All gore and ballsy rage in his plays...
that's one thing. But it's still just talk... idinit? Why didn't the bloke do something besides
talk? ... Join the army, for instance? (The
bleeding navy don't count). I mean,
where was he during the Falklands?
[In a rapturous,
By Mars´ Ruddy arse, there was a bit
of a rumble! Would've loved to been down there!
And there's always plenty of Special Service
stuff... taking out some IRA crud when Whitehall
gives the word! And Black Ops in the land
of the Mad Mullahs, eh? Plenty of
work for King and Country [jeering at the cut-outs again]...
if you're man enough for the job!
But what's little Berky do? [With contorted revulsion, as if
he'd swallowed something putrid]
He writes, for Chrissakes! [Campy falsetto]
He prances 'pon the stage!
Arts-fartsy. Wilde. Kafka. That
little egg-head prick, Hamlet.
And, oh my, how he whines about the bloody
Belgrano and all them poor baby Argie boys who
went down to their wat'ry graves. [He grabs his sword, sticking it
under the chin of the Berkoff cut-out, shouting]
OF COURSE IT WAS MURDER, YOU SCRIBBLIN'
SOT! THAT'S WHAT WAR'S FOR!
[Turns back to the
audience with a shrug] Yadda, yadda,
yadda, yadda... drives me fucking nuts, all their
fucking talk. [With
a hiss] I tell you I could? [Takes his sword up with both
hands, swinging it before him viciously as he
circles around Shakespeare and Berkoff]...
take' em both out? [beating
time with the sword] ...with...
just... one... good... hard...
clean... fucking... swing!
He stops behind
the cut-outs, with the sword drawn up high in the
air, ready to decapitate them both, but freezes,
thinking? then lowers the sword to the ground.
NAAAAH! They're not worthy of
my sword. [Draws
a cut-throat razor out of his pocket]
They're not worthy of martial music and
the rites of war... and they shall not have a noble memory.
Just one smooth, little bitty slice... [drawing the
blade across the throats of the cut-outs] ...
and they're gone and forgotten forever? the
beastly little cowards.
off-stage left, amplified]
does a double-take, drops the razor, and slowly backs off
stage right, his hands over his crotch, in fear and
the arrangement of Scene One, with Shakespeare and
Berkoff back on stage in the exact position and dress we
left them in. They look around nervously and a
little sheepishly for a moment before speaking.
[Looking to stage right, where
[Looking to stage left, where
Volumnia's voice was]
||It sounded like?
like rain, I think. Did you hear something?
Buzzing... like wasps, when you poke their nest
with a stick. But where were we?
||You were saying
something about... "Disneyland"
||No, no! We
were talking about the RSC... how they ruin your
plays. Royal Shakespeare Company, my ass...
Royal Shit Company's more like it!
||Just so. But
you did Coriolanus recently, did you not?
||Yes! [shy, hesitant]
Did you... maybe... get to see it?
[a la Noel Coward]
old chap. Would've loved to... but it's not
permitted where I am now. Play to full
houses, did you?
Could've been better. We ran a couple of
months. But... [Sighs]
I loved doing it. Friends, critics and sycophants have
said it was good. But somehow... a bit disappointing.
Maybe I'm just tired. Becoming an Old Mole myself, eh...
depression. Closing a play is hard, Steven,
a kind of death... you know that! Don't
worry. You'll be back strong as ever next
season. You'll eat 'em up, Son.
[With a wink, seeing that Berkoff
is hungry for more]
really shouldn't tell you this, Steven? but
although I didn't personally see your
Coriolanus, I did talk to some angels who did? it
can be arranged if you know who to ask... and they
||[Falling before him, clasping his
feet] Yes, yes, YES!
said it was... [teasing delay,
looking all around? then jumping on his chair and
flinging an arm out with each word like Bob
Fosse, he bellows] ... FAN... FUCKIN... TASTIC!
polite Brit again, but a bit naughty and
tittering, as he helps Berkoff back to his feet
again] You made old Sir Ian's R
III look a bit sick. Really!
Don't blush my boy... it's true! Here? [taking the laurel from his
head and offering it to Berkoff] ...
you deserve one of these too.
||[Twisting his torso, hands jammed
in his pockets] Naaaaaagh!
false modesty, sirrah! You know you're
great? just as I knew I was.
He places the
laurel on Berkoff? who beams and mimes looking at
himself in a mirror.
What you don't know is, whether it's
all worth it... once the curtain falls.
||It's crossed my
I'm afraid I've got bad news for you,
Berky. I dunno either. Even
after all this time.
It's all a crap
shoot. You work, work till your teeth ache
and your balls break? but the day comes when all
you can do is spit on your hands and roll the
dice. And then something... physics,
gravity, fate, luck, some god or goddess, maybe...
Tumble, tumble, tumble, tumble go the
little boney dice, Dame Fortune's Great Wheel
turns, neutrinos drill a hole in a chink of your
ma's DNA, a horn blows at midnight, the Great Owl
hoots... and there you are, 30 years later, rich
and happy, or poor and fucked.
There's not much in between... for the son of
a Warwickshire glover like me, or for an East End
tailor's kid turned writer, director, producer,
designer and kick-ass actor like you! [Eloquently, but without
Life's but a
walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
[King and I
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera!
But theatre matters, Steven... only
theatre. Not we poor players, not the
critics... and certainly not the bloody RSC.
[Peevish at first]
OK! "The play's the thing."
But really [teasing now]
isn't it a bit crass to quote yourself that
no! Not if you're like me. Or Steven
roll: they do a double-take, and on the down-beat, go
into a soft-shoe finale? then embrace, laughing and
clapping each other on the back like old army buddies.
[With a huge sigh]
gee, thanks, Will, for the shoulder to cry
on. Thought you ought to know what the SOBs
at RSC are doing to your stuff. Feel
like popping out for a pint?
in arm, they exit, yelling out gleefully in unison:
| SO NOW YOU KNOW OUR
dim on two chairs, bright on the third. All
dialogue is off stage until Coriolanus enters.
||Get out there
you pip, you worm, you ninny!
Mother! Must I, must I?
||You know you
must. I love you, but you must. Youve let
those two sneak off too easy. Scoot!... do your
duty as the Roman son of a Roman mother.
Im going! Jeeeeez!
fanfare. Berkoff as Coriolanus appears at stage rear in a
shaft of blue light which changes to a bright white as he
steps forward, in the shining, full-dress regalia of a
Roman general (golden breast plate etc.). He wears a
gilded oak laurel, and carries a helmet, a spear, and a
fourth chair ? a small gilded throne, with a tasseled,
Opera Buffo ungainliness, he places the throne on a
platform behind the chairs, turns two chairs around to
face the throne and the third in profile to it. He puts
his helmet and spear on the turned chairs and sits in the
profile chair, at first in a legs-apart posture? then
growing shy, closing his knees, tugging his Roman skirt
wanted me... to tell you...
||First tell them
who I am, for gods sake!
[Beaming with pride]
Shes MY MOTHER! VOLUMNIA! She made me what I am today... great
general, feared soldier, defender of Rome... a
cojones guy, a lion among men, a myth...
Marlboro Man, OO7, Ollie North... a veritable Rambo
(who can act!).
Cori! Naughty, naughty!
[Turning his chair full to the
audience, getting chummy] You see?
I LOVE MY MOTHER! [Suddenly sobbing
profusely] More than my wife! More
than my life! More? [biting a knuckle] ...
more than my honor!
But Ma couldnt make
me what I aint! A bloody politician!
Hypocritical, pussy bastards!
Bronx-Jewish accent] Will you forget
the ass-wipe politicians for once already! Just get
on with it, Caius Marcius !
accent] Who else am I? [A rose-red light falls on the
but with proud conviction] Well,
shes also... my lovely, lovely
SYLV! ... from East
and West. Remember her? Bawdy, beautiful,
randy Sylv whom Mighty Mike couldnt love as
much as he loved the blood and guts rumble with
the fire-breathing Huxton Monster?
hearing something from the audience] Whaaaaat?
stands, hands on hips, and swaggers out to the
footlights, with a snarl.] You
East or West? YOU
WANKERS! You common
pack of curs whose breath I prize / As the dead
carcasses of unburied men / that do corrupt my
air? I should take me spear to the lot of you!
eyes the audience ferociously.
By Bloody Jove, I
runs and grabs the spear, and cocks one leg up,
about to lunge out at the audience.
freezes in the spearing pose, then slowly and
suggestively lowers the spear.
Oh, all right?
slinks back to the chairs, puts the spear down,
and starts unbuckling his armor? eventually
stripping down to white tee shirt and maroon
Where was I ? Oh yes? my
lovely Sylv. [Walking
to the throne, he goes down on one knee, places
one hand gently on the cushion.] How
could I ever forget you!
[Quotes from West.]
take the future of England in my
this with his other hand]
and ponder her body which seems
to me as if a shoal of silvery
fish were gathered in a net / and
wiggling and slithery and her
silken skin encasing her
[Bows his head? then, with a mad grin,
jumps up into an iron-pumper pose? yelling out in
machine-gun staccato, as if one long word]
Berkoff-Collected Plays-Volume I-Faber and
|| Now, now,
Stevie ! They cant all see your
[Exasperated, pacing around, running his
hands over his head]
Hey, Mother Vol? cut me a little slack,
will ya! Im trying to make a sale. Do you
have any idea what my overhead is these
|| All right,
dear, all right. But its late? weve
got to move on. Who else am I?
Can I quote myself again?
|| As you wish?
but, as you told William, it is a bit
Oh, all right.
pulls on an Oxford dons robe, whips out a
telescoped pointer, extends it suggestively, and
assumes a Terry Thomas upper-class tone and
Well, then? just who is
this Volumnia woman? Roman matriarch, yes, yes?
quite. But more. Much more. The Magna Mater,
the Great Mother. The veritable Ur-woman,
as it were.
In short, shes what
all we fellows fear? the archetypal
Adored. The Desired. The Feared. The Dream Girl
one could scarcely speak to? much less date, much
less touch, much less play hide the weenie with,
when one was only a Pubey Little Runt!
up now, losing his Oxford accent]
Shes that lovely
Lovely? on the tube or clopping down the sidewalk
or just sitting in the deli, with a cuppa and a
book. You oggle her fiercely and tenderly on your way to the
office or the grocery or the school or the jail or the war.
She’s that... [slow, lusty moan, dropping the
pointer and sensuously peeling off the robe]?
terrrrrific blonde or brunette or redhead you saw... [Pointing at
the men in the audience, a la Joan Rivers]
Oh yes! Oh yes! Dont deny it! ? the
very one you peeked at, out in the bloody lobby
of this bloody theatre, this very bloody night!
[Mimes hearing something]
What? Hush, hush, is it? Oh, grow up! Your
wives and girlfriends know all about it, you
miserable fakes. (Dont you, my dears?) So
dont try to look so bloody innocent, you
And, seeing that goddess in
the lobby, you thought? if only for a
micro-second, deep in your randy, terrified
little boys boisterous brainstem? you
choking]? Oh, god! ... if
Annnnnnd... [In lightning-fast Cockney, as he
slips on a camouflaged army shirt and helmet] ...
she’s also your daffy sister and all those nameless aunts and
female cousins and so on in the fucking family tree you paid no
attention to while you were so fucking busy playing patriarchal
martial arts combat] ... like World Wars
and Vietnam and Sink the Bloody Belgrano and
Desert Smart-Weapon Storm and Bomb em in
Belfast and Obliterate em in Oklahoma and
Bash em in Bosnia and Chop em in
Chechnya and Whack em on the West Bank and
Crush em in the
Corporate-Takeover-Downsizing-Olympics and the
Coca Cola-International-Arms-Sales Regatta!
a deep breath, then softly]
So slurp up the Guinness
tonight, boys... ‘cause tomorrow we’re off to... [shouted
there! Chill a bit, will you, Son?
Oooops! Sorry, Mum.
his back to the audience, wearily putting his
hands on his hips, then shaking an arm in
frustration, looking up into the
But you know, Ma, you could
help me with this... JUST A LITTLE
BIT! Pleeeeze, Ma!
blackout. A loud burst of harp music.
[Out of the dark]
Thought youd never ask!
Oh, my babe, my son, my lovely boy, my Adorable
Adonis, my Dumuzi Darling, my brother, my
consort, my bold helper, king, and lover? my
slowly rise on Berkoff
as himself in dark slacks and
jersey again. The small throne is gone. He gets
down on one knee, facing the audience, as he and
Volumnia (off stage) exuberantly recite from the
Theodore Roethke poem, "I Knew a
Berkoff and Volumnia
knew a woman, lovely in her
Flashed on a large
screen at stage rear? Botticellis Birth
birds sighed, she would sigh back
she moved, she moved more ways
a bright container can contain!
Botticelli fades out, and Sylvs voice joins
in the poem
choice virtues only gods should
English poets who grew up on
Volumnia and Sylv, hand in hand from stage rear?
Volumnia in costume from Coriolanus, Sylv in
costume from West.
have them sing in chorus, cheek
The women flank
Berkoff, taking his hands, smiling. Facing the
audience, they continue in unison:
they dazzled at her flowing
parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip
quiver with a mobile nose.
in circles and those circles
seed be grass, and grass turn
martyr to a motion not my own;
freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow
white as stone.
But who would
count eternity in days.
bones live to learn her wanton
time by how a body sways).
The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke,
Doubleday &. Co. 1966]
| Harpsicord music?
18th Century minuet.
Berkoff kisses each woman on the cheek and bows
as they curtsy. They all exit, dancing to the
music. A gong sounds. The rear curtain drops to
reveal a twelve-foot tall gold statue of the
seated Egyptian Goddess Isis ... bathed in glitter
The amplified voices of Sylv and
Volumnia now chant a hymn to Isis...perhaps to
Greek flute music.
| Sylv and Volumnia
I am Isis.
I am Nature,
ball out. Sylv and Volumnia enter, dressed in
dark slacks and jerseys. As their chant
continues, they look up at Isis in wry wonder,
lifting their arms to the audience in a wide,
Worshipped by countless
Innana, Astarte, Artemis,
Priestess, Divine Wife.
the Great Mother.
Music ends. The women look puzzled.
Suddenly, wearing only a diaper and carrying a small bowl
and spoon, Berkoff hops out from behind the statue,
crawls up to its lap, and sits there facing the audience?
grinning and softly bouncing.
a wink, patting Isis lovingly on the hips]
You know, Ive always
liked chairs in my plays! [In Cockney] But do you
know? ladies and gents, black and white, young
and old, rich and poor, royals and schtarkers... do
you know what the name Isis actually means?...
a histrionic baritone, trilling the r, a la
It means THRRRRONE,
Ya get it, eh, doncha... Throw-aaahnn.
Well then! ... its a sort of chair,
a baby now, he looks up at Isiss face over
his shoulder, waving the bowl wildly, and crying
Mummy, mummy! Can I have
women are dumbfounded... but now laugh and sing
YES, YES, OF
COURSE! ? NOW THAT YOU KNOW OUR NAMES!
grins mightily, puts the bowl on his head like a helmet,
and starts bouncing up and down madly, swinging his spoon
like a sword.
A spotlight snaps on. Stage bare.
Berkoff enters, in slacks and jersey again, tossing the
green laurel wreath gently in his hands as he walks...
reading Sonnet 29, in a crisp, modern accent.
When, in disgrace with
Fortune and mens eyes,
I all alone beweep
my outcast state,
And trouble deaf
heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon
myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to
one more rich in hope,
him, like him with friends
mans art, and that mans
With what I most
enjoy contented least;
Yet in these
thoughts myself almost despising,
think on thee...
At stage rear, the Isis statue
is slowly back lit, revealing Volumnia and Sylv
flanking it, arms at their sides, both dressed in
long white robes, with gold multi-ring necklaces.
Berkoff continues solo.
... and then my state,
Like to the lark at
break of day arising
From sullen earth,
sings hymns at heavens gate;
Volumnia and Sylv slowly arc
their arms up above their heads, mimicking Nile
River Goddess sculptures.
thy sweet love rememberd such
Berkoff bows to Volumnia and
Sylv. They return it.
I then scorn to change my state with
Volumnia and Sylv take small gold
crowns from their robes, and crown themselves. All lights
except the spot on Berkoff fade. He steps out of the
spotlight, flinging the laurel far out into the house.
Copyright © 2002 Ken Lauter
Included on the site with the kind permission of Ken