Friday, March 05, 2010

Bovary on Fire: A Tragedy in One Act

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Below is another years-old short story I'm digging out of a box, hooking up to electrodes, and reanimating so it can shamble around for a while. I wrote this sometime in the early '00s, whatever those are called, and it's been mostly untouched since an early draft because I think it did what I wanted it to do from very early on and I didn't have to tweak much. Thinking about it, "Noughties," I guess I prefer. Anyway, please enjoy the following combination short story/play.



REED, a man in his 30s with light brown hair and a long, open face. He wears glasses on occasion, mostly when he’s driving or reading small type. When he’s not using them they rest in the breast pocket of his shirt. He’s reading small type as the play opens, in particular a newspaper, international news section. So they’re not in the breast pocket of his shirt. Also, Reed is dressed casually for a man of his means. Shoes, jeans—but clean and crisp jeans, probably ironed. Yet they’re also comfortable and well worn. Basically, they’re the kind of jeans you’d imagine on a guy with the first name “Reed.” This is important to notice, because as the play opens this could be Reed’s first vacation day in quite some time. The dialogue will hint at this, but it’s not known with absolute certainty.

SADIE, a woman in her 30s, Reed’s wife, who has been nearly the same average height and weight since high school. Of course, this is a lie. She has steadily gained two pounds every year since, and has grown four inches. She merely appears the same to the casual observer. However, it amuses her to spring this mendacity on people, and so far no one has called her bluff. This has no bearing on the action whatsoever.

DORIS, Sadie’s sister, whom we never see during the course of the play even though she has a major role in the lives of Reed and Sadie. That way, as a nonphysical presence, she dominates the play much more than any one actress could. Like Godot. Godot is not an actress per se—Godot would be an actor, male, if he ever showed up, which he hasn't in pretty much every staging of that play of which this playwright is aware, but nevertheless despite a gender switch and a similar 5-letter name structure (which may be coyly intentional), the metaphor is relevant. Moving on. Reed is having a blatant affair with Doris, and Sadie has discovered this, and within the course of the play Sadie is planning to voice her objections, including in her mind the requisite “How could you do this to me” scene, and so forth, &c., “We’ve had 10 good years together, Reed, what made you want to seek—” no, “...what did I do to drive you into her arms,” if she can pull it off without sounding corny. And Sadie breaks down and stalks across the stage, projecting toward the audience and moving her arms in a poignant pleading motion. And Reed, an emotional glacier ordinarily, cracks for the first time, and much heavy drama ensues, building to a sharp apocalyptic climax and ending soon after. I don’t want to give up the ending, but let’s just say he puts down the newspaper. Sadie’s figuring out how exactly one brings up this touchy subject, especially seeing as how Reed works so hard as an optician (a motif of sight but not seeing) and this is his first day off in God knows how long. He’s an optician or optometrist; whichever is the actual doctor.

There is also a brief mention of EDDIE, Doris’ husband, but he’s more here out of plot convenience, and he doesn’t show up in the flesh either.


Reed and Sadie’s living room, which is furnished with three plywood walls painted and decorated and furnished to look as if well-to-do people like Reed and Sadie really live there. A staircase in the back has a few steps, which, as far as the audience is concerned, leads to their master bedroom, but which actually leads backstage. Fake doors without hinges or working knobs lead, presumably, to other rooms. Hell, let’s put a fake fireplace on one side of the room and light it with a small fan and convincing-at-a-distance orange and tissue paper, both of which (the fan and the paper) make a slightly distracting whirr and dry flap-crackle that everyone can hear during dead spots in the dialogue. Despite the fireplace, the play takes place in the heat of August, mimicking the fiery passions that lurk just below the characters’ surfaces. This is important.


The Belanger living room, just after noon

As the curtain opens, Reed is sitting in his living room, in a comfortable, gray chair, while Sadie sits on the matching couch. Sadie knows that his sitting alone instead of the big empty space on the couch has been planned meticulously by him as a sign of his possible alienation—and as a matter of fact she thinks maybe he’s not even reading the newspaper at all, because he’s not really had much use for the newspaper’s actual news (as opposed to stock prices and the occasional Red Sox box score) before today. So she’s convinced—no, OK—as the play opens she just suspects that Reed is not really reading, but is feigning interest in an Israeli election analysis to get out of having a conversation with her. Her suspicion solidifies into conviction somewhere in Scene 2. Sadie herself is in the middle of a book: “Madame Bovary,” in a cruel ironic twist. She speaks:

SADIE. (under her breath, but still bristling with sarcasm) Oh well.

(It’s killing her that Reed doesn’t respond, because her saying “Oh well” in reply to nothing, just out of the blue, is clearly indication that she wants him to notice her, or that she would like him to put down the newspaper at least. The “Oh well” she had planned to act as a wedge with which to split open his cocksurety regarding his affair with Doris, but to her dismay Reed’s not having any of it.)

(By the way, there’s an antique rifle hanging on the wall. I forgot to put that above. In the "setting" section. You’d think most likely it’s Reed’s, wouldn’t you? Being a man? Sadie, being a woman, would not own a rifle, because women hate guns, right? How easily art can expose the petty bourgeois stereotypes that govern our lives! The gun—here it is—the gun is actually Sadie’s! Long story, short version: Sadie’s father, a man who looked extraordinarily like Reed, was a varmint-hunting enthusiast, and this rifle, with an elaborate stock [you can’t quite make it out at this distance, but it’s enough to know it’s there without getting specific], her Daddy left to her after he had a fatal diabetic attack. They shot squirrel- and woodchuck-shaped targets together at a range when she was a young girl, and consequently she is a crack shot.)

SADIE. (looking over at Reed, turning a page of “Madame Bovary”) (sniffs)

(Christ, but he’s a clod! Not a glance! That sniff was a cry for attention, but he isn’t biting.)

SADIE. (wracked with despair, yet as if she’s finding something amusing in Flaubert’s text [another irony]) Hmf.

(Reed flaps the newspaper leaves gently, to upright a corner of the page that has curled downward. At the same time, Sadie’s expression makes it abundantly clear that she is being tormented by Reed and her desire to shine the light of truth on his sexual misdeeds. And, as if we are unable to watch her squirm a minute longer…)



The Belanger living room, later that same afternoon

Same as Scene 1, except now Reed is studying the national news section, specifically those pages devoted to the political beat. Sadie is no farther along in “Madame Bovary” than she was in Scene 1, leading us to believe she is not reading also, or is, more interestingly, at a point in the text which she believes holds a great deal of significance to the matter at hand—therefore, she is rereading this serendipitous passage in the forlorn hope that something helpful in Flaubert’s text will reveal itself.

SADIE. (in a sudden, furious burst of impudence) What are you reading?

REED. (looks up from the newspaper after a moment) Hmm?

SADIE. (don’t quit now! easy does it…) Anything interesting you reading there?

REED. Not really. Same old shit in Washington.

(This throws her—“same old shit”? What can this mean? She is unable to respond. Why, it’s more than obvious what the hell he’s intimating! He’s flaunting his affair, the prick! She nods approvingly, then screws up her courage.)

SADIE. (realizing she has this one chance to make her feelings known about his affair, feeling as only a sullen, cuckolded loan officer at a respectable downtown bank can feel, unable to take much more of Reed’s hanky-panky, and willing, this once, to force this travesty of a marriage to a most likely painful climax, and to expose her philandering husband before the audience she can see gawking—mocking her!—just past the proscenium) That’s how it goes.

(Reed looks at her and grins briefly. Sadie has the upper hand in this battle of wills.)

CURTAIN CLOSES on Reed and a wiser, more assured Sadie


The Belanger living room, later, after Sadie has braced herself with a glass of tap water

Same as above, except now there is a half-empty glass of water on the coffee table.

(Sadie has “Madame Bovary” closed and is pressing it to her lap, as if tapping its strength.)

SADIE. (clears her throat) Reed, honey? Are you—?

REED. (looking up from the Arts & Entertainment section—a sly nod to the audience: visible on the back page is a story about a stage version of “Madame Bovary” coming to theaters) Sorry?

(Her words fail! She opens her mouth to speak, yet—nothing. She looks deeply into his eyes, and sees that this, yes—this Reed is the Reed she married those 10 years ago. Despite his failings, the obvious way he’s been diddling her sister while she’s at the bank, not bothering to pick Doris’ hairpins out of the bedsheets afterward, the Christmas gifts to Doris of clearly inappropriate silken and lace underclothes, the way Reed and Doris sit on the same side of the dinner table when the four of them, Reed, Eddie, Doris, and Sadie, go out on couples dates so Reed can slyly fondle Doris' clitoris through her dress under the tablecloth to watch her squirm [in public no less! he who turns up his nose even at public smooching normally]—despite all this, yes, he’s still in love with her! How could she have been such a fool? “Sorry,” he said! Not “pardon,” or “excuse me,” but “sorry”! Sadie swallows dryly, groping for the glass of water. She grasps it with a palsied hand, brings it to her lips and drinks deeply. If it’s simply physical comfort he’s seeking in Doris’ arms, maybe she could overlook it. It’s the love Sadie requires—the snuggled, late-summer feeling of a couple sitting together in a room and saying nothing, yet not a strained minute passes between them. He still loves her, yes, he does! And with his obviously calculated response of “sorry,” he might even be subconsciously letting her know that he has failed her, but he’s trying to make it work—by God he made a mistake! She has been torturing Reed this entire afternoon, all selfishly. Perhaps she and Reed and Doris and Eddie can come up with some sort of—she doesn’t know what—an arrangement of some sort. Dear Lord, just as long as she can keep her husband, their family of two intact, soon to be three—for Sadie is now, silently, unknown to any of the other characters, carrying Reed’s child.)

(Sadie stands, moves to the end of the stage, “Bovary” in hand.)

SADIE. (looks out at the audience, a hand at her lips) What have I done?

REED. (follows Sadie’s gaze blindly out into the audience) Hmm? What are you looking at, hon?

(Sadie can’t bear to face Reed. She tries but tears obscure her vision. “Madame Bovary” falls clattering into the orchestra pit, missing a timpanist by mere inches. This is actually a mistake, since she's supposed to throw the book into the still-whirring-and-flapping fake fireplace, which not only would be thematically significant but results in some minor pyrotechnics—not to mention now the title of this play doesn't make sense. Soldiering bravely on after this blunder, Sadie runs to the rear of the fake room and removes her father’s antique varmint-hunting rifle from the wall.)

REED. Hon?

[Exeunt Sadie and the rifle up the stairs.]

(After a moment, we hear a gunshot and a meaty thud. The shot is actually the stubby report of a pistol, not a more long, echoing rifle blast, because the pistol sound FX was all that was available at the time, but at this point we’re more interested in the emotional meltdown taking place onstage.)

(This is when Reed drops the newspaper. He stands, runs to the foot of the stairs.)

REED. Oh God! No! Doris!

[Exit Reed.]

(After an uncertain moment, we hear another gunshot and a thud. And thus the fate-curs├Ęd Reed and Sadie meet their tragic end, and…)


(However, after a relatively short period of mourning, Sadie and Reed, knowing the audience is clamoring for a happy ending, emerge from beyond the curtain to the front of the stage to assure the audience that they are, in fact, not dead after all, and are happier than ever judging by the conviction with which they hold hands and bow.)

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