A Comedy of Manners

A Comedy of Manners

Of a number of false dawns, the acceptance of a play script by a Tony-Award-winning Irish theatre company really stands out. Despite the December 2000 email (see above), we didn’t meet until 11 April 2001, in central Dublin, when their man described it as a one-act, middle-class version of the English sitcom The Royle Family.

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The first warning signal, though, came on 18 May, from an unlikely source.

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He did not but more importantly he was not wrong. Heard no more and by early March 2002, I’d simply had enough.

You may rest assured of the lasting impression made by the lack of courtesy shown me by you and your company. I’d ask for my script back only I couldn’t see the point, given that an e-mail costs less than the price of a stamp and I haven’t received even that minimum after almost a year. Such casual, arrogant rudeness may seem to cost little or nothing when dealing with someone who is unknown and without the influence that can command prudent good manners. That would be a short-sighted view. At present my only satisfaction is the Schadenfreude resulting from reading about Druid’s troubles in the press. Whatever fortunes rise and fall in the future, the fact that I was misled and shabbily treated will remain uppermost in my mind.

In response their man apologised and acknowledged the absence of any update had been out of order. Unfortunately for him, the company’s financial problems saw him lose his job soon afterwards, which was worse than me being messed around.

Anyway, the script got renamed The Coolidge Effect, after the old joke about President Coolidge and the First Lady visiting a poultry farm and spotting a cock jumping on a hen.

The Coolidge Effect

© John Flynn 2001

Characters

TIM, a middle-aged middle manager

SHEILA, his wife

TOM, a retailer

SANDRA, his wife

Scenario

This is an episode in an undeclared war within and between rival two suburban couples who have nothing better to do.

TIM has the remote control, a newspaper and the sofa. Enter SHEILA with pen and paper. She sits on an armchair and reads from her list in progress.

SHEILA
We need to do some shopping. Let me see. Eggs… bread… teabags… cereal… yoghurt… paté… chutney… ethical coffee…

TIM
Assorted smelly cheeses…

SHEILA
Kiwi fruit… avocados…

TIM
What happened to the frequency band of low fat and high fibre?

SHEILA ignores him.

I’m thinking of buying a new drill, by the way. I want to put up a few shelves in the attic.

SHEILA
Why there? But what am I saying? You can never have enough shelves.

TIM
Can I have some fat bacon?

SHEILA
No. We’ve discussed that before. We can’t have you eating what you like, not at your age.

TIM
I’m also thinking of changing my car, by the way.

SHEILA
Already?

TIM
I have it two years. Almost.

SHEILA
Is there something wrong with it?

TIM
No. I should be able to get good value on the trade-in. I just feel like a change.

SHEILA
How long have you felt this way?

TIM
I meant to tell you, I just forgot.

SHEILA
You just forgot, just like that.

TIM
I’m sorry, darling.

SHEILA
Something important like that. You didn’t think to tell me.

TIM
Forgive me. Find it in your heart. I haven’t done anything yet.

SHEILA
I was only thinking I’d like to spend some money on the house.

TIM
But we added the extension only last year. What do you have in mind? The kids are gone, practically. Though I still feel their, eh, impact.

TIM rubs his thumb and forefinger. SHEILA stands up and points, like a visionary.

SHEILA
I want to knock out the wall between this room and the downstairs bedroom. Think of how good it would look, when we have people over for dinner. That reminds me, Tom and Sandra said they’re going to call over tonight.

TIM
Oh no. What do they want?

SHEILA
I don’t know. Perhaps they’re going to suggest going on holiday with us.

SHEILA removes some holiday brochures from the armchair and puts them aside but within reach.

She sits again.

TIM
Oh great. How would we promote Tom? Let me see. Genuine Irish character. Guaranteed to bore the arse off you.

SHEILA
He’ll be talking shop, as usual.

TIM
His shop.

SHEILA
It’s hers too, Tim. But tell people what they want to hear, that’s my motto. In fairness they’re not the worst.

TIM
No, they’ve never let us down. But I prefer to stand up and be counted. Except now. Don’t tell him I watched the match on TV the other night.

SHEILA
Why don’t you want to tell him you watched the match?

TIM
No need.

SHEILA
You were sprawled there all evening.

TIM
I just don’t want to talk about it. It’ll just mean listening to more of Tom’s philosophy. He has some funny ideas about the game. Despite all the games he travels to see.

SHEILA
Sandra was on about curtains as well. I wonder what she’s thinking of getting.

TIM
Since we are but man and wife clinging to a speck of dust that’s careering through the universe… who gives a squint?

SHEILA
Anyway, that wall, knocking it down, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Promise me you’ll think about it.

TIM
I’ll think of the expense.

SHEILA
We’re doing well enough, aren’t we?

TIM
We’re doing all right, I suppose, but Richard and Jane are costing us a fortune in college. We’re haemorrhaging cash here, darling.

SHEILA
Now we have the extension we hardly need the old downstairs bedroom, do we?

TIM
Maybe not, but I’d like to put any more of your proposed alterations on hold for a while. I’d like to change my car. Whatever extra loan I’d get I’d want for that.

SHEILA
Next year, then? Is that what you’re saying?

TIM
Whatever. Maybe. We’ll see.

SHEILA
Knocking out a wall is not a huge job.

TIM
But it’s messy. We’ll need a builder, and a decorator.

SHEILA
That’s only for the tricky bits. We could do some of the work ourselves.

TIM
If we paid them, then maybe the kids would help out.

Pause as SANDRA gives him a look. She picks up the brochures.

TIM
I’m joking. Christ, I’m joking. Are they the holiday brochures?

SHEILA
Any preference this year?

TIM
You pick a place. I’m easy. Where are they for?

SHEILA
Spain, Portugal, the Canaries. The usual.

TIM
We know pretty much what we’re going to get, so. Just pick a place where we won’t get ripped off, or kept awake all night by chavs screeching, smashing flowerpots, shagging in the pool and tramping around in high heels at six in the morning.

Brief pause

So, what do we get? Two weeks in summer, one in winter, and some weekend away during the year. That’s our total. And everything has to be paid for.

SHEILA
We could go back to the same place as last year. That’s one option.

TIM
I don’t know. It was nice. But there wasn’t that much to see there.

SHEILA
The beach was lovely.

TIM
The beach was nice. But I didn’t like the hassle to buy a timeshare.

SHEILA
You could get that anywhere. They left us alone after a couple of days. Remember the restaurant across the road from the complex? That was good.

TIM
It was good value all right. Big helpings. All the chips you could eat. Look, you decide, dear. I’m easy. Just tell me how much.

SHEILA
I’ll see if I can come up with a shortlist from what’s available. Oh no, that’s my shopping list.

SHEILA has got momentarily confused.

TOM
By the way, I must get a saw blade. Add that to the list.

SHEILA
Shouldn’t I make a separate list for the things you want to buy?

TIM
Make mine on the other side of the grocery list.

SHEILA crosses out hardware items and writes them instead on the back.

SHEILA
Do you think we need more toilet paper?

TIM
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from life, it’s that you can never have too much toilet paper.

TIM lies back with a sigh.

SHEILA
What are you thinking about?

TIM
The past.

SHEILA
What about it?

TIM
It will never come again.

SHEILA
What will never come again?

TIM
What were you like, in college, say?

SHEILA
College? Let me see. I suppose I was a bit of non-entity. No missing lectures, no heavy drinking, no sex. Not in the Biblical sense anyway. I don’t think it affected me at all, really, looking back. It was only after I started working and before I met you that I loosened up a bit, experienced real hangovers, did it for the first time. Got it out of the way, so to speak.

She studies a list again.

Why do you ask? I must have told you before.

TIM
Several times.

SHEILA
Why ask, so?

TIM
I only got drunk when it was student night in the local barn. I wasn’t the type to lodge in a pub simply because it was drizzling on a Monday afternoon. I had a girlfriend most of that time and it was all lovely and stable. I was never depressed.

TIM sits up again.

Never elated, either, mind you.

SANDRA
Depressed? Why would anybody be depressed in college? Unless they were actually hungry. Or they expected too much out of life.

TIM
I flew through. A part of me sneered at the wasters. Sometimes, now, I envy them.

SANDRA
You envy our kids, I’ll bet.

TIM
Perhaps I wasted my time.

SHEILA
The news is on. Do you want to turn the sound up?

TIM
No. I’m not in the mood for other people’s disasters.

SHEILA
Neither am I.

TIM
Do you want to go late night shopping during the week, or tomorrow, in the daytime?

SHEILA
Tomorrow, if that’s OK with you? I’ve a stack of tokens and vouchers collected and some of them will be out of date if we don’t go then.

TIM
Add chocolate biscuits to the shopping list. Please.

SHEILA picks up the wrong list.

TIM
You’ve got the wrong one there. That’s your holiday list.

Doorbell rings.

SHEILA
That must be them.

TIM
Here we go.

TIM rises somewhat stiffly and exits to answer it welcomingly, offstage (“Come in, come in”) while SHEILA tidies cushions, newspaper and brochures.

TIM returns with TOM and SANDRA.

General meaningless utterances ensue before everybody is seated.

TIM
What’ll it be? The usual?

TOM and SANDRA hesitate politely, mumbling uncertainties.

TIM tells them what they are going to have, from experience: a whiskey and water and a gin and tonic. Then he looks at SHEILA who says she’ll have a vodka and Coke.

Phone rings. SHEILA drops her brochures and exits to answer it.

TIM dispenses drinks and pours a whiskey for himself. TOM wears tinted specs. Then TIM cocks an ear.

TIM
By the tone of her voice, it has to be one of the kids. They don’t ring to say hello. How much is it this time, I wonder? I’d better not say too much, though. She’d rear up on me at the thought that her babies might miss a meal.

SANDRA
They’re your babies too, Tim.

TOM
If they do that, then it’s their choice. It’s not like you don’t give them enough, I suppose.

TOM takes out a cigar and gestures for permission to light up.

Re-enter SHEILA.

SANDRA
Tom!

To TIM and SHEILA

He’s not allowed to smoke those things in our house.

TIM
It’s OK, Tom. Think of it as a treat, to celebrate the fact you’re over here.

SANDRA
I’m sure Sheila would appreciate it if you didn’t light that up.

SHEILA makes no comment.

TOM puts away the cigar.

SHEILA

To TIM

It’s Richard. Your son. Do you want to say hello to him?

TIM rises in order to exit.

SHEILA
He’s looking for money.

TIM looks beseechingly to heaven and exits.

SHEILA sits again.

SHEILA
It’s Richard.

SANDRA
How is he?

SHEILA
He’s fine, I think. He’s preparing for his finals.

TOM
I hope he’s keeping the head down, so.

SHEILA
We can but hope.

TIM returns.

TIM
I had barely begun speaking to him and he was gone. Said he explained to you about the money. What was the cock-and-bull excuse this time? Don’t tell me he said it was for books.

SHEILA
He said it was for Jane. Apparently her grant came in before his did and she lent him money and now she needs some to go on some field trip and was afraid to ask, so he said he would.

TIM
A field trip? At this time of year? I suppose it means that in some way he’s looking out for her.

SHEILA
I wouldn’t be so sure. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was her idea and she put him up to it.

SANDRA
Nothing on this earth matches the talent for conspiracy possessed by teenage girls. We see it all the time in the shop, don’t we Tom?

TIM
How much did he ask for, anyway?

SHEILA
Two hundred.

TIM
Ninety for his bar bill, ninety for hers, twenty for food? Who knows? Jesus, what next? They have part-time jobs and grants and standing orders and still-

SHEILA
College is expensive, even for hermits.

SANDRA
Burning all that midnight oil, like we did ourselves. Though I never went on, myself.

TIM
Burning my wallet at both ends, more likely. Did he say anything about them coming home? When are the exams over?

SHEILA
It was all a bit vague. It’ll be after his finals, whenever they finish. That’s all I know.

TIM
They must sense the fridge is empty. I must get a saw blade. Add that to the list, will you?

SHEILA
You told me that already.

TIM
There may or may not be a field trip but I just have visions of my daughter spending my money buying pints for some long-haired bozo who only gets out of bed to go to the pub or the toilet but who – she thinks – is deep.

SHEILA
If you want to put it that way, I can see your son wasting it on some gorgeous little bitch whose only justification is, I’m beautiful, blow it all on me.

TIM
More likely they’ll be holding each other up at the counter. They’re young.

SANDRA
They’re there to work and they have to work to get there.

TOM
Look at how well our Robert has done by applying himself.

TIM
When was he last home?

TOM
As long as they’re doing the work, we have to keep forking out, investing in their futures.

TIM
No sign of him lately, eh? But we must drive on.

TOM
How’s your car going, Tim?

TIM
Oh, it’s OK. I’m thinking of changing it, actually.

TOM
I change mine every year now. It’s the only way. Has to be done.

TIM
It’s every two years with me now. Almost.

TOM
Don’t you get bored with driving the same car that long? I know I used to.

TIM
I get bored with a lot of things, Tom.

SANDRA
Any holiday booked yet?

SHEILA
No. This year we’re seriously thinking of Italy, or maybe Greece.

TOM
Ever been to America, Sheila?

SANDRA
There’s nothing in Italy.

TOM
Not that we saw anyway.

TIM
Really? When were you there?

SANDRA
That year we went to the south of France, to the Riviera. Bloody French. Can’t even speak English like normal people. Anyhow, while we were there we went over the border on the train, to Ventimiglia. There was nothing there.

TOM
And when Robert was in Zürich, with the bank, while we were over there to visit him, we went down to-

SANDRA
Lugano, was it?

TOM
I think that’s actually in Switzerland, pet. You remember the other place we were. Como.

SANDRA
Oh yeah. I think it had a lake. Robert’s girlfriend was Italian. She was a nice girl. Her English was fluent. She was well educated.

TOM
I imagine we’ll go back to the States. To see Robert and then go down to Florida. Next year, probably. We’ve a lot on our plate at the moment.

SHEILA
Where exactly is Robert now? Any sign of him coming home for a visit?

SANDRA
Phoenix. It’s in Arizona. It’s hot. He’s busy.

TOM
He’s making a fortune out there. The bank just paid for a trip to Disneyland for his whole development team.

TIM
Wow.

SANDRA
Florida is great. All the shopping malls.

TOM
The freeways. It’s a big country, America.

SHEILA
But how is he? Apart from the fact that he’s making lots of money. Has he a girlfriend? Maybe he’ll arrive home with an American wife one of these days.

TIM
Or a husband?

TIM shrugs.

SANDRA
Oh I don’t know if I’d like him to get serious with an American girl.

SHEILA
Why ever not? What happened to the Italian one? You showed me photos of her once, I remember.

SANDRA
It just didn’t work out, I suppose. Robert’s job and everything. It’s a pity, in a way. At least the Italians are Catholics.

TIM
Tell me, Tom, has he been to Vegas yet? Plenty of paint and powder there for young lads like him. But he wouldn’t ever waste his greenbacks like that, would he?

SANDRA
He’s always been good with money.

SHEILA
How’s the shop doing? It must be flying, I suppose.

SANDRA
We’re getting by.

TOM
We have two main problems, always.

SANDRA
Shoplifting is one.

TIM
What’s the other?

TOM
Trying to keep staff.

SANDRA
Between the girls getting pregnant-

TOM
And the boys giving lip. There was a reason for unions maybe, once upon a time. Nineteenth century.

TIM
Don’t tell that to Sheila.

SANDRA
I didn’t know you were a union person. But then again, you are a public servant.

SHEILA
I’m not, I wasn’t, not really, but when it’s there and you have to join, well…

TOM
Boys or girls, it doesn’t matter, they’d rob you blind, even more than the customers.

TIM
Fingers in the till?

TOM
More like their elbows. How are things at work with you, Tim?

TIM
At the factory, Tom, we find that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys.

SANDRA
I’d say he’s only winding you up, dear.

SHEILA
Of course he is.

TIM
That’s all it is, Tom. That’s all it is. A wind-up from start to finish.

TOM
But I respect your opinion.

TIM
Everybody should have a chance to earn a living wage. Everybody should mind their own business. They’d be my policies. But I’m not a politician.

SHEILA
He wouldn’t have the patience.

TOM
Sandra didn’t know you were such an extremist, Tim.

TIM
How come it’s only the madmen who ever speak up? That’s what I ask myself. That’s what I want to know.

TOM
Now what you’re saying sounds reasonable in theory but-

SANDRA
If you ask me, it’s all in the breeding.

TIM squirms in his seat with growing frustration.

SHEILA
So, any scandal? What’s the talk of the town? If there’s one thing sure in this life, in this town, someone else will always make a blunder.

SANDRA
Eh, nothing much.

SHEILA
Well?

Pause

SANDRA
We do have some… big news, actually. That’s why we came over.

SHEILA
Well? Tell us.

SANDRA
Tom, you say it.

TOM
We’re moving house.

Pause

SANDRA
We thought it only fair to tell you before the “For Sale” sign goes up next door. You have the right to know.

TOM
It’s only fair.

SANDRA
We’re a bit tired of the lane.

TIM
The lane.

SHEILA
The lane? How many years have you been here?

TIM
How long have you two been running the residents’ association with an iron fist?

SANDRA
There’s a good community spirit established here now.

TIM
I know. There isn’t a lawn uncut on the estate.

SHEILA
Where are you going?

SANDRA
To the new development, over the bridge.

TOM
Ampleforth Close.

TIM
Ampleforth Close?

SHEILA
So, you’re moving house. Well, all I can say is congratulations. When can we see the place?

TOM
They won’t be ready for a few months yet, at least.

SANDRA
There’s just so much to do. All that new furniture to get, of course. I’m going shopping for new curtains on Saturday. They’re to help spruce up our interior spaces. Would you like to come with me?

SHEILA
Oh… I’d love to. What time?

SANDRA
I’ll call for you around twelve. We can have lunch in town. My treat.

SHEILA
Lovely. I need to buy a new bag anyway so we can have a look for that too.

SANDRA
That’s settled, so. Great.

TIM
More money, eh Tom?

TOM
She hasn’t even mentioned the garden yet.

SANDRA
I’m thinking of putting in an extra effort there. I’m talking to a designer.

SHEILA
Have you? That’s interesting.

TOM
She even wants concrete lions on the gate pillars. But we’ll get a few dossers on the dole to do all the donkey-work, for cash in hand.

SANDRA
I told you I’m not too sure about that. What if they get caught by a welfare inspector?

TOM
Don’t worry about that. We can say the landscaper-

SANDRA
The designer-

TOM
-hired them, if push comes to shove. I’m sure he’s hired enough of them in the past. Who do you think does all the digging on these projects anyway?

TIM rises and tops up the glasses. He is most generous to himself.

SANDRA
Oh I don’t know, really.

TOM
I find these people do fine, if it’s just for a few days, if you keep a close eye on them. As long as it’s daylight. But if you give them cash in hand, and a few cans of lager, and all the chips they can eat, they can be useful.

SANDRA
The poor you shall always have with you. It’s a sad fact.

TIM
Murphy’s Law.

SANDRA
It’s people like us who keep the finger in the dyke, who keep the show on the road.

TOM
Otherwise there’d be anarchy.

SHEILA
At least it’s tranquil around here. We should count our blessings, I think.

TIM
Well, good luck to you both, with your purchase. It’s nice, I suppose, though the name of the estate is kind of… stupid, to be frank. Will you stay for a few sandwiches? Sheila will make them, won’t you dear? If you’d had more notice you could do a few chips for our guests.

SHEILA
Do ye want chips?

TIM
Right, now, I must take in the bins before I forget.

TOM
That reminds me. So must I. No grub for me, thanks.

SHEILA rises and sits again.

Exit TIM and TOM to take in the bins.

SANDRA
So tell me more about what you are going to do with this house.

SHEILA
It’s nothing compared with your news. Concrete lions, eh? Wow. But I have to persuade Tim first, to do the little bit I have in mind over here.

SANDRA
I’m sure he’ll do what he’s told. Eventually.

SHEILA
He’s not bad with his hands, to give him his due. A bit more suggestion and gentle persuasion and he’ll take it up like it was his own idea. The thrill of the drill. Maybe it’s a sex substitute. Do you know something I can’t remember the last time that wasn’t after the pub on a Saturday night.

SANDRA
The last time? I don’t know. We rarely go to pubs.

SHEILA
Don’t you have any more… interest?

SANDRA
In Tom? In that way? When he turns over and farts in my face at the drop of a hat? Don’t tell me you still have faith in that kind of thing?

SHEILA
But don’t you ever see some fella and think I wouldn’t mind a bit of that?

SANDRA
It’s never going to happen, I tell myself that, so why think too much about it? My child has grown up, Sheila. Although there are moments, still, when… ah, nothing.

SHEILA
But what about Tom’s feelings?

SANDRA
I don’t know and I don’t really care. I don’t want to know.

SHEILA
A young man at work made a pass at me at the Christmas party. I told him I was old enough to be his mother. I know, he said. I asked him what he wanted. He asked me what did I think he wanted. He was quite brazen about it. I didn’t do anything – I kissed him – but afterwards I thought to myself… I don’t think I’ve gone to seed. I’m not ashamed to lie on the beach. Some people have no shame, I suppose.

SANDRA
You’re shaping up to be a bit of a Shirley Valentine, Sheila.

SHEILA
Well, it’s always left to me to organise holidays. I love the sun, and Tim likes to unwind, so I’ll just pick somewhere he can relax and I can stretch out. We’ll drink wine on our balcony in the evenings and maybe even make love in the dark. Our sex life is about as thoughtful and reflective as… a trip to the bathroom.

SANDRA
It’s comfortable, I suppose. You’re comfortable together.

SHEILA
To lie in the sun again. Away from all this damp. It’s like a dream. Some day I’ll have the house the way I want it.

Pause

SANDRA
We didn’t mean to put this place down, by the way.

SHEILA
Of course you didn’t.

SANDRA
It’s just that we always had our eye on moving over there.

SHEILA
We won’t be able to miss your new house, with the lions.

SANDRA
Let me show you a model of one. I just got it from the designer. Come on.

SHEILA
Can you bring it over to show Tim? He’ll be amazed.

Exit SANDRA and SHEILA.

Enter TOM and TIM.

TIM
If I were really honest with her I’d tell her I’ve never been hugely into sun holidays. Or skiing for that matter. Well, that’s a bit different – I usually end up pulling something at that.

TOM
What? A bird? You dirty dog!

TIM
No. My wire.

TOM
What?

TIM
A muscle, a ligament, something painful, whatever. It’s not that I’ve never liked the sun – I do – it’s nice – but maybe I’d prefer to see more of the world.

TOM
You should see America.

TIM
I did, I saw New York, when I was a student. I like to look at buildings – not that I know much about architecture or anything. To be fair, she’ll take a look too, and take photos, but it’s a habit we never really developed. I guess in the early days I had a suspicion that if I pushed her too far she’d snap.

TOM
Let me guess.

TIM
What do you want to look at them for? They’re only old. She’s happiest lying in the sun. I think I’m most relaxed when I’m sawing and hammering.

TOM
I know what you mean.

TIM
She’s still in good shape.

TOM
The house?

TIM
The wife. I should compliment her more on that. For the effort. Does she ever wonder if I’ve been unfaithful to her? The most I’ve ever done is think about it. These days it’s all I ever think about.

TOM
Really?

TIM
I’m bored, I suppose. I doubt if she thinks about all that too often anymore anyway. Sometimes, after the pub. There’s a girl at work – I’ve had a few drinks with her.

TOM
And?

TIM
She seems not to think I’m past it, somehow.

TOM
My advice is to avoid messing with the girls at work. You have more to lose.

TIM
I know, I know.

TOM
But don’t throw in the towel, just yet. Money talks, Tim, remember that.

TIM
Do you mean hookers?

TOM
Tim, please.

TIM
You dirty dog. How often do you ring?

TOM
Tim, please.

TIM
Has Sandra any idea?

TOM
Sandra asked me – nicely – not to touch her anymore, so that suits me fine.

TIM
But does she know?

TOM
No. She’d only be a dog in the manger, if she saw me enjoying myself, that is. Tim, what I’m saying is that you need a hobby. A package. What I mean is some excuse to be away from home, on your own, so to speak, occasionally. A change of scene does wonders for my patience.

Enter SANDRA and SHEILA.

SANDRA carries a large model lion.

TIM
What on earth…

TOM
Well, what do you think?

TIM
What am I supposed to think?

TOM
By the way, can I borrow your drill, Tim?

TIM
What for?

TOM
I want to hang some things on the wall.

TIM
Like what? That thing?

TOM
A few pictures.

SANDRA
They’re for the people who’ll be looking at the house. Viewing will be strictly by appointment.

TOM
I bought a few pictures, just to hang up.

TIM
To add a bit of class, eh?

SHEILA
Get the drill for him, Tim, please.

SANDRA
No, there’s no hurry.

TIM
No, it’s fine. I’m going to get it now. That thing’s eyes are following me.

TIM rises to get the drill.

TOM
Have you any spare drill bits too? If you have, that would be great.

Exit TIM for the drill.

SANDRA, SHEILA and TOM start examining the model lion on the coffee table.

Re-enter TIM with the old drill, which he inspects and plugs in. He sits back down with it. He squeezes the trigger occasionally, punctuating the conversation with its revving.

TIM
This one no longer packs a sufficient punch.

Squeezes trigger for a rev

I did something brave at work today. It followed on from a little incident at breakfast, in the canteen, yesterday. The general manager was behind the financial controller in the queue, watching him getting his tray filled. When the big man asked for beans, the boss tapped him on the shoulder. What are you doing, getting beans? You’re management. We don’t eat beans. Only poor people eat beans.

TIM points the drill like a gun at the lion and squeezes the trigger again.

SHEILA
What did he do?

SANDRA
I suppose he couldn’t give them back. Scraping them off the plate would be too messy.

TIM
He stood his ground and ordered his beans.

SANDRA
And?

TIM
He went and sat down with his tray.

SHEILA
What’s all that got to do with you?

TIM
The rest of us in management just had to order beans at breakfast this morning.

SHEILA
I see. There’s safety in numbers.

SANDRA
Nobody can be singled out after that, if you all did it.

TIM
I don’t know if that has anything much to do with the point I was trying to make.

SHEILA
What do you mean? You all did it, so you’re all OK.

TIM
Never mind. Forget it.

SHEILA
Look, I know it was stupid, to say that thing about the beans in the first place.

SANDRA
I would have just ignored it.

Pause as TOM asks for and takes the drill and then gives it a few revs.

TOM
This baby has seen some service, hasn’t she, Tim? But I don’t see any space for more shelves.

TIM
I know, we’re cramped, aren’t we? I’ll have to do my thing in the attic.

TOM
You should invest in a new one. A drill with real power.

TIM
That’s what I was thinking.

TOM
I’m about to buy a mighty one for our new place, if you want to borrow it for a while, later on.

TIM
I was thinking you would. But this one will have to do for now, won’t it? Will you be happy enough with it for now?

SANDRA
Yes, thanks very much, Tim.

TIM takes the drill back.

TIM
They’re going up very fast over there.

SHEILA
They look like they’re going to be nice houses.

TIM
Bird houses. Don’t tell me you’re tired of the lane now, as well?

SHEILA
No, no, what do you mean?

TOM
Listen, Tim, we didn’t mean to, you know…

SANDRA
Even though you said Ampleforth Close was stupid.

TOM
We hoped you’d be happy for us, if anything.

TIM
It would be going too far to say I’m happy, here. Ampleforth Close? Mother of Jesus, what kind of name is that for an Irish address?

SANDRA
I think it sounds classy.

TIM
You would.

SANDRA
If you’re so interested in old hat, why don’t you sign up for an Irish language class, or something?

TIM
What else have I got left, apart from herself here and two fuckers bleeding me dry and pissing it away? Marriage, mortgage, shopping, death.

TIM stands up with the drill.

TOM
Sit down, Tim.

SHEILA
Where are you going?

TIM
I’m leaving you. However briefly, darling. I’m hitting the pub. I’m not doing any more DIY, I’m not knocking down any more walls and I’m not going to fry in the sun anymore.

TOM
Hey, relax there, Tim.

TIM
Our home is warm and comfortable and structurally sound. So leave the bloody thing alone. That’s going to be my new motto. She can come to the pub with me if she likes. I know you two won’t go, whatever happens.

SANDRA
Going to the pub doesn’t solve anyone’s problems.

TIM
Whatever, I leave you both to your dreams of a property ladder going up to heaven. Ampleforth Close. Jesus. You’re welcome to it.

SANDRA
Well, if that’s they way you feel…

TOM
Er, Tim, can I still have your drill?

TIM
Sure, Tom, I won’t need it any more. I still have my meat and two veg. They don’t belong on any shopping list. But first let me prove to you that it still works.

TIM drills through the lion’s head, before totally destroying it by stamping on it repeatedly before their amazed eyes.

This is what we do to vulgar trespassers around here. Now, I’m going out. Before I forget where to get a late drink in this town. That’s going to be my new hobby. Garden cleaner.

Exit TIM. Embarrassed, shocked silence.

SHEILA
I don’t know what’s got into him.

TOM
Is he under a lot of pressure?

SANDRA
You just sat there and let him do that!

SHEILA is still looking at the lion in bits.

SHEILA
I’m really sorry about… that. Can it be… fixed?

SANDRA gets up to go.

SANDRA
Come on, Tom.

SHEILA
Let me talk to him, when he calms down. He’s never been any way violent before, you both know that. He’s a good provider.

SANDRA
I’ll see you on Saturday, if Tim’s recovered his composure and apologised and replaced the lion by then. Come on, Tom.

SHEILA
He’s under a lot of pressure at work, Tom.

TOM
We know, we know. Are you OK? Don’t worry about it. Do you want us to stay?

SHEILA
No, thanks.

TOM
Do you want me… to go after him?

SANDRA
Are you going to the pub too?

TOM
Who, me?

SHEILA
No, no, forget it. I think I’ll go to bed, in fact. He’ll come back and cool off on the sofa, or somewhere. It was an eventful day.

SHEILA has another look at the smashed lion. She puts a hand to her mouth. She may even be laughing.

TOM then lights up a cigar and has a smoke before they leave.

SANDRA
Tom!

TOM
Shut up. I had a hard day too. A cigar is just a cigar.

He takes a drag.

Sometimes.

CURTAIN

 

 

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Happy Nights

Happy Nights

Happy Nights

© John Flynn 2006

Characters

PATRICK, a burglar
MICHEL, a burglar

Scenario

Happy Nights was inspired by a real event, in that, one night in July 1961, Samuel Beckett’s Marne cottage at Ussy was burgled. According to Beckett’s biographer James Knowlson, the burglars, as well as enjoying all the food and drink they could find, stole his clothes – even his old underpants – but left a painting that was quite valuable untouched. Happy Nights was produced by Red Kettle theatre company and premiered in Ireland at the Waterford Festival of New Plays in April 2007. John Hurt was the special guest at the first performance.

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Set

A representation of a window is seen in the centre at the back. A bookcase stands to the left of the window. A rectangular bureau desk, stacked with papers, stands to the right, with a chair. A round dining table should be placed in front, flanked by two wicker chairs, each with arms and a cushion on its seat. A small wicker footstool and a large wicker wastepaper basket should also be present.

– – –

The scene is darkness apart from moonlight in the window. From off left come the sounds of a shutter being forced and a window broken.

Enter PATRICK and MICHEL, dressed as tramps. PATRICK switches on the light and MICHEL ducks under the furniture.

PATRICK limps, having hurt his leg gaining entry. He grimaces, mutters, holds his knee. MICHEL observes but makes no comment.

MICHEL
Hope nobody comes.

PATRICK
We won’t wait around.

They take time to size up their surroundings.

MICHEL
What time is it?

PATRICK
Past midnight.

MICHEL
Never knew such silence.

PATRICK
At this place, at this moment, all mankind is us.

MICHEL
I like it that way. We should have plenty of time.

PATRICK
We have time to grow old.

They begin to search through books and papers and quickly make a mess.

MICHEL is rougher at this and shows less finesse. He throws books on the floor.

PATRICK
Take it easy. Have some respect. For the books, at least.

MICHEL takes it easier. After a couple of minutes, PATRICK halts.

PATRICK
I’m hungry. Do you want to go and see if there’s anything to eat?

MICHEL
That’s an idea. We could feed ourselves.

MICHEL exits left.

PATRICK

Calling after MICHEL

Don’t bother with anything like carrots or radishes. No vegetables of any kind!

PATRICK examines the contents of desk drawers. Pots and pans rattle off left.

MICHEL returns with a re-corked bottle of wine and two glasses. He pulls the cork with his teeth. They sit on the wicker chairs.

PATRICK holds his knee. MICHEL sniffs the wine in the bottle.

MICHEL
This wine should still be all right. There are a couple of unopened bottles too.

PATRICK
Any food?

MICHEL
Some tins. But I couldn’t find an opener or a corkscrew.

Brief pause as PATRICK reflects.

PATRICK
How did prehistoric man open cans? What did he use?

They sample the wine.

MICHEL
It’s a pity. I’m hungry too. Damn.

PATRICK

Producing a knife

Be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything.

PATRICK hands the knife to MICHEL, who exits left.

PATRICK resumes the search.

MICHEL returns with a couple of open tins and sits again. He samples the contents before passing it to PATRICK, who tops up their wine glasses.

PATRICK tries the contents of the tin and they both drink some more wine.

MICHEL stands up again and exits left. He returns with his arms full of clothing and footwear (a pair of boots, a straw hat, a working jacket and an old pair of underpants).

They inspect and swap these items continuously until PATRICK is wearing the straw hat and jacket and MICHEL the boots and the underpants (on the outside). They sit again.

PATRICK raises a toast.

PATRICK
To our absent host.

MICHEL
He’s a writer or something, isn’t he? Personally I wouldn’t know him even if I met him.

They guffaw.

PATRICK
To the maestro.

MICHEL
What if he comes?

PATRICK
Maybe he’ll come tomorrow. Back in Paris, he is sleeping. He knows nothing. Let him sleep on.

MICHEL
But while we’re not sleeping…

PATRICK
Others suffer. We’re no saints. We make no appointments.

MICHEL
But arrive unannounced.

PATRICK
Unlike billions.

Pause to look around

Far from this Marne muck.

MICHEL
As though the world were short of slaves.

PATRICK
It’s a vile planet.

MICHEL empties the first tin, scrapes it and leaves it on the table.

MICHEL

Cocks an ear

What’s that? What’s happening?

PATRICK
A robbery is taking its course.

MICHEL
Hope nobody comes.

PATRICK
You should know better. There’s no hope of that happening. Not now. Relax.

MICHEL
I don’t know. I can’t relax. I can’t go on like this.

PATRICK limps to the window to look out past the curtains.

PATRICK
Uninhabited.

MICHEL
Do you think we’ll ever be caught?

PATRICK

Deep breath first

The chances are fifty-fifty, I’d guess. Over an entire lifetime of crime, that is.

MICHEL
It’s a reasonable percentage. From a life.

PATRICK
Or maybe one of us will be safe, while the other is damned?

MICHEL

Trace of anguish

Until then, must we go on?

PATRICK
We’ll go on. Unless you have a better idea.

MICHEL
I have no idea. Well, none worth talking about.

PATRICK
We won’t despair. Whatever we find here.

MICHEL
We won’t presume, either.

PATRICK
Never presume, except that somebody might be hanging around. It’s safer to presume that much, at least.

MICHEL
Yes, but-

PATRICK
Yes?

MICHEL
Maybe you’re different but I don’t have eyes in the back of my head.

PATRICK
I think you’re hearing voices.

MICHEL
A normally reliable little voice told me about this place.

PATRICK
And? Drink your wine and count your blessings. I wanted to do this one because it’s an ugly little thing.

MICHEL
I thought this chap would have lots of stuff.

MICHEL tosses more papers onto the floor.

PATRICK
Quite spartan, isn’t it? Never mind. It’s good to be in his den, in his old rags. And we always find something, eh, to leave the impression we existed?

MICHEL
There are still those bottles of wine.

Points off left

There’s a painting out there too, if you want to take a look at it.

MICHEL hands the knife and the second tin to PATRICK and then pours more wine.

MICHEL
And what if we do get caught? What if? One day – one night – happy pickings, and then – bang! – all our troubles are only beginning.

MICHEL takes the empty tin from the dining table and throws it on the floor.

MICHEL
What time is it?

PATRICK
Stop asking me the damned time. Are there any more tins?

MICHEL
Billions. This was the break we needed all along.

PATRICK looks up. He puts down the knife and tin, as if something is dawning on him.

PATRICK
Do you have some aspirations?

MICHEL
I think more of resolutions, these days.

PATRICK
To drink less?

Brief pause

And to eat more, at this very moment. Are you sure there’s nothing else?

MICHEL
There are some bananas. But they’ve gone off.

PATRICK
Ah.

Pause

Have you grown attached to those underpants?

MICHEL
I’m going to keep them.

PATRICK
After you, I wouldn’t want them back.

Brief pause

MICHEL

Smiling

No, I wouldn’t want them back.

PATRICK removes the jacket and puts it on dining table.

MICHEL
Have we sunk so low that we’ve gone too far?

PATRICK
There must be something in here.

MICHEL
Don’t you think we should stop?

Spreads his arms

While the going is bad.

PATRICK
All life long the same questions.

MICHEL
The same answers. You should have been a lawyer.

PATRICK

Indicates his shabby clothes

I was.

Brief pause

MICHEL
And if we do get caught?

PATRICK
They’ll make an example of us. So much happens around here.

MICHEL
So many robberies.

PATRICK
We’d have to repent.

MICHEL
Our being thieves.

PATRICK
All the break-ins.

Brief pause

PATRICK and MICHEL

Together

We’d be crucified!

They both ponder in silence.

PATRICK
Then we’d wonder if we’d have been better off alone, each one for himself.

Pause

PATRICK
In the meantime, let us converse calmly.

MICHEL
We are capable of being silent.

They go silent.

MICHEL
How’s your leg?

PATRICK
Bad.

MICHEL
But you can walk.

PATRICK
I’ll live.

MICHEL
Is this any way to live?

Brief pause

MICHEL
We should have done something else.

PATRICK
We should have thought of that a million years ago.

MICHEL
Back in the Fifties.

They think of the Fifties.

PATRICK
We have our excuses.

MICHEL
It’s because we want drink.

PATRICK
Add naked bodies.

MICHEL
So she said, last night.

PATRICK
We should have done somewhere else.

MICHEL kicks papers around.

PATRICK replaces a couple of books on the shelves.

PATRICK then sits again, grimaces again. MICHEL follows suit.

PATRICK
Have a last look in the kitchen.

MICHEL
You look this time.

PATRICK
But my leg-

MICHEL
If you tell me any more about the blows you received I’ll stick a carrot up your arse.

PATRICK limps off left. More rattling. He returns with some more tins and puts them on the table.

Then he exits right again, this time returning with two bottles of wine. He puts them in the same place.

When he limps off a third time MICHEL sits up and pays attention.

When PATRICK comes back he is carrying a bottle of whiskey.

PATRICK
Finish your tin.

MICHEL
Finish your own.

Pause for MICHEL to indicate the whiskey bottle.

MICHEL
I suppose you’ll want to keep that for yourself?

PATRICK
You can have the wine. And the clothes.

MICHEL
We ran out of stuffy little bourgeois types to rob. Then you just picked on people you didn’t like.

PATRICK
Ignorant apes.

MICHEL
Just what do you want now?

PATRICK
Whiskey.

Pause as PATRICK examines the bottle.

PATRICK
Even then I didn’t let you take anything of sentimental value.

Brief pause

For sentimental reasons.

MICHEL
People get sentimental about money. I needed money. Now I’ve saved some.

Brief pause

Why don’t you just leave this place?

PATRICK
I can’t, I’ve spent mine.

MICHEL
Don’t you ever think of something you’d like to do, apart from this?

PATRICK
Lie on my back and fart and think of Beckett.

MICHEL finds no answer to that.

PATRICK
Just how much money do you think you need anyway?

MICHEL

After a little hesitation

Enough to open a little shop.

PATRICK

Laughs wildly

That’s no job for a man.

MICHEL
Maybe not, but there’s no money here for us, buried up to our necks in books and papers.

PATRICK
If you ever open that shop I’ll rob it. And lose my last friend here. Maybe then I’ll leave.

MICHEL exits left and brings in the painting. He examines it from various angles before PATRICK grabs it, turns it the right way up and props it against a leg of the dining table.

The audience cannot see it.

PATRICK
Don’t put a boot through that.

MICHEL
I’m more cultured than that. What makes you think…?

PATRICK
Whether you do it on purpose or accidentally, on purpose.

MICHEL
These boots are starting to hurt me.

PATRICK
Take them off.

MICHEL
I can’t. They’re stuck.

PATRICK
Just like the underpants.

They sit again, facing each other, having moved the chairs and footstool closer together.

PATRICK pulls off the boots. MICHEL sighs, puts his shoes back on, then picks up the boots.

MICHEL
I’ll keep them anyway. I might even give them to some tramp.

MICHEL puts the boots on the table. PATRICK examines the unopened tins.

MICHEL
Are you going to take that stuff too?

PATRICK
I thought I might eat it. But I’ll give it to the dog.

MICHEL begins to assemble a clothes pile on top of the boots. PATRICK grabs the jacket and puts it back on, rubbing his knee.

PATRICK

Referring to the old jacket

Don’t worry, I’ll give you this later.

MICHEL
What about the painting?

PATRICK
Put it back. How would we get rid of it around here?

MICHEL
Except hang it from a tree?

They pause for an unenlightening bout of reflection. PATRICK sticks tins in the jacket pockets.

MICHEL
Well, shall we go?

PATRICK
Take off your underpants first.

MICHEL removes the underpants, folds them and puts them on the straw hat on top of the boots.

PATRICK picks up the bottles of wine and passes them to MICHEL.

Then MICHEL picks up the underpants again, in order to wrap the bottles after he places a bottle in each boot. Finally he places the hat on top of the finished pile.

PATRICK lifts the whiskey bottle and then takes a book from a shelf. He shows the book to MICHEL, who lifts the pile in his arms.

PATRICK
He signed it. I’ll sell it, down the line.

MICHEL
I can’t do this anymore.

PATRICK
That’s what you think. We are French. We don’t care. Nobody care unless it happens to him.

They take a lingering last look around the room.

PATRICK
Well, shall we go?

MICHEL
Yes, let’s go.

They leave.

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Austria, a notebook #4

Austria, a notebook #4

 

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Photo sources (above): montazsmagazin.hu and kino.de

In 2008 an Austrian-German co-production of a TV film version of Dürrenmatt’s Der Besuch der alten Dame shifted the setting from Switzerland to Austria. The filming took place in Styria. Most importantly they picked a very good Claire Zachanassian in Christiane Hörbiger, niece of the porter in The Third Man and aunt of Falco’s manager in Verdammt wir leben noch. At the climax in the original play, though, the richest woman in the world does not waver from her initial goal: to return and exact deadly vengeance on the man and the town that ruined her life. Otherwise, given that Ill is still killed, it’s a good version of the classic play that Hollywood castrated in The Visit (Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Quinn, 1964) and watching it is an excellent way for students to improve their German. I don’t know why the old critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki dismissed the second half (“wird immer schlechter”). The acting is consistently good, as he conceded. The music by Matthias Weber is suitably sinister. It is a horror film after all. Ich liebte dich. Du hast mich verraten (‘I loved you. You betrayed me’).