“The Mad Scene” — prologue to Wim’s new play

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Here is the prologue to my latest full-length play, The Mad Scene, which has been aptly described as “an Our Town about the Reign of Terror.” I’ve been developing it during the last year or so with amazingly brilliant members of the Yorick Theatre Company, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and Theatre at St. John’s, as part of the Theatre at St. John’s Cyber Salon, hosted weekly by Mark Erson and Everett Quinton. The parts were read by Everett Quinton, Jenne Vath, Sally Plass, Maude Burke, and Shane Baker; Daniel Neiden directed. The Mad Scene has yet to be produced.

The entire text of The Mad Scene is available on the New Play Exchange or by contacting me personally.

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PROLOGUE

Characters:

Marie Grosholtz/Madame Tussaud
Marie Antoinette

The scene is the Madeleine Cemetery, Paris, the night of October 16, 1793.

MARIE ANTOINETTE’s head lies in the lap of MARIE GROSHOLTZ, who will later become known as Madame Tussaud. MARIE works by the light of a lantern.

MARIE. Madame …

ANTOINETTE. There is no sky.

MARIE. … can you hear me?

ANTOINETTE. I never noticed it before.

MARIE. I must take your face.

ANTOINETTE. Carolina, look for yourself. You’ll see it’s true.

MARIE. I’m not Carolina.

ANTOINETTE. There is no sky. There are only stars. Oh, and a slender curved scimitar of a moon, hanging by … an invisible thread, I suppose. But tied to what? There’s nothing to tie it to, nothing to hang it from. There is no sky. (wincing) Don’t. Carolina, why are you touching my face like that?

MARIE. I’m not your sister. I’ve got to make a cast of your face.

ANTOINETTE. What are you smearing on my skin?

MARIE. Oil, so the plaster won’t stick.

ANTOINETTE. What a silly thing to do on such a night, with a moon and so many stars and no sky at all to gaze at. Look.

MARIE. I’m looking.

MA-Lebrun

Marie Antoinette, by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.

ANTOINETTE. No, you’re not. You’re looking down at me. You’re in the way of my view. But where are we? Oh, we fell asleep in the gardens again, didn’t we? I was counting clouds and you were giving them names and it got dark without us knowing it. Our dresses must be soaked through with dew. Odd, I feel so … dry. We’ve got to get back to the palace. The countess must be angry. Or beside herself with worry. Poor old thing, we’re so much trouble to her.

MARIE. We’re not in your garden in Vienna.

ANTOINETTE. Of course we are.

MARIE. No. This is the Madeleine Cemetery. In Paris

ANTOINETTE. What are we doing in Paris? Don’t touch my eyes.

MARIE. I’m only closing them.

ANTOINETTE. Why?

MARIE. Because they’re not glass. I’m covering them with plaster.

ANTOINETTE. I don’t understand.

MARIE. It’s best not to talk.

ANTOINETTE. Why not?

MARIE. The dead are usually quiet. Or at least they’re supposed to be.

Exécution_de_Marie-Antoinette,_Musée_de_la_Révolution_française_-_Vizille

Execution of Marie Antoinette, Museum of the French Revolution. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license: creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en

ANTOINETTE. I’m not dead.

MARIE. Madame, you have been beheaded. You are certainly dead. Tomorrow you will be buried. It really would be best to keep quiet. You’ll upset yourself.

ANTOINETTE. You’re not Carolina.

MARIE. So I’ve been telling you.

ANTOINETTE. I’ve not been beheaded.

MARIE. You have, and it was hard to find you among so many dead, all thrown about every which way, so it’s hard to tell whose head belongs to whose body. Don’t you smell the stench?

ANTOINETTE. No.

MARIE. Death has its blessings then. I never guessed how blood and flesh could stink. It’s always such a chore, this scrounging through stench and open graves, looking for just a certain head. Your husband was even harder to find than you, and to make things worse, he was already dissolving in quicklime.

ANTOINETTE. My husband?

MARIE. But I found you. I recognized the white morning dress you wore on the scaffold, even though it was stained and caked with blood and dirt. Then your head was easy to spot, plopped right between your knees. But your face looks strange now—so thin and drawn, with a scalp of short white hair. When did your hair turn white? Oh, I hear it was after you were caught trying to escape—you and the king and your children. I can fix all this when I make your new face.

ANTOINETTE. Who are you?

MARIE. I hoped you’d remember me, madame. My name is Marie Grosholtz. I lived at Versailles nine years. I tutored Madame Elizabeth in molding wax, and I lived in her apartments and kept her company. You were very kind to me in those days, madame.

ANTOINETTE. Versailles? Madame Elizabeth?

MARIE. The king’s sister. You don’t remember. You’re confused. But don’t worry. The plaster will set, and we’ll be finished soon, and it won’t matter whether you remember or not. I needn’t tell you to keep still. You’re doing that anyway.

ANTOINETTE. There is no sky.

MARIE. I’m sure you are correct, madame.

ANTOINETTE. Oh, yes. Versailles. They tell me I’m going there. They tell me I am to become the Dauphine of France.

MARIE. If you say so, madame.

ANTOINETTE. I am to marry the Dauphin, they tell me—Louis-Auguste, some cousin I’ve never met. They say he is a clumsy boy, rather stupid, and he’s sure to grow fat, and he can’t dance at all. But then, I’m just a girl myself, and people say I am silly and I laugh more than I should and I like to dance too much. No, don’t deny it, I know that’s what they say. But he’s a boy, just a boy. I wish I could marry a man, someone wiser, someone I could trust to know …
… how to …
But it’s not up to me, is it? Nothing is up to me. And not only must I stop being an archduchess, they tell me I must stop being Austrian, and I must say goodbye to everyone I’ve ever known—even to you, Carolina, and also to Mutti—and I must forget how to speak German and speak French perfectly for the rest of my life. And when I go to France, before I meet the Dauphin in the Forest of Compiègne, I must be stripped of every scrap of my Austrian dress and be clothed anew in the manner of a French princess. Of course there will be people watching me change. It’s always been like that. I’ve never been naked alone. But in France there will be more people than ever, watching my every waking moment, and while I’m sleeping as well. I will put on my rouge in front of the whole world. It will never stop.

MARIE. There. The plaster is set. I’m almost finished.

ANTOINETTE. That pinches.

MARIE. Yes, but only for a moment, while I remove the cast.

(MARIE pulls the cast away.)

MARIE. I must leave you now.

ANTOINETTE. Where are you going?

MARIE. To where I work.

ANTOINETTE. You can’t leave me.

MARIE. I must. I’m sorry.

ANTOINETTE. I am your queen.

MARIE. France has no queen.

ANTOINETTE. Obey me.

MARIE. I must obey the National Assembly. I wish it weren’t so.

ANTOINETTE. Take me with you.

MARIE. I can’t take your head, madame. I’ll lose my own if I try. Adieu.

Madame_Tussaud,_age_42

Marie Tussaud, by John Theodore Tussaud.

ANTOINETTE. Wait! I remember! Your name is Marie! You make likenesses from wax! Elizabeth adores you! She came running to me a little while ago to show me a Virgin you taught her how to make. “Look, sister!” she said. “Look at my little wax Mother of God! I made her look just like you without meaning to, I couldn’t help it! Was that blasphemous of me, sister? Must I confess it to the abbé?” “No, sister,” I said. “No blasphemy at all …”

MARIE. Adieu, madame.

ANTOINETTE. But what will happen to me after you go?

MARIE. I don’t know.

ANTOINETTE. Oh, but you do. I’ll vanish. I’ll die. Please, I beg you. It is only by the grace and bounty of your madness that I still live. Don’t let me die.

MARIE. You’ll live again in wax.

ANTOINETTE. But will I remember … ?

MARIE. I don’t know what you’ll remember.

ANTOINETTE. Will I still be myself?

MARIE. I don’t know.

ANTOINETTE. Am I myself even now?

MARIE. I said I don’t know.

ANTOINETTE. Please stay!

MARIE. Dawn is nearing.

ANTOINETTE. We’ll watch it together!

MARIE. I must go.

ANTOINETTE. We’ll skip barefoot in the dew, watch morning burst into blossoms of light, bathe ourselves in mad mists of swirling color! We’ll worship the sun and laugh and dance like Incan priestesses!

MARIE. Adieu.

(MARIE exits, carrying her lantern.)

ANTOINETTE (dying). There … is … no … sky …

BLACKOUT.

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Le triomphe de la guillotine, Nicolas-Antoine Taunay

Ecclesiastes (poem)

From I.O.U., Wim’s new book of poems, available at Amazon.com.

(Upon reading “Mind at the End of Its Tether” by H.G. Wells)

Saith the Sage,
there is no Shape of Things to Come;
there is only the Coming of Shapelessness.
Maps crumple—yea, and also the landscapes they signify—
into dimensionless wads of nothing;
the clock’s hands are blurred the whole way round;
the eons snap their fingers in our faces.
The very NOW contracts its steel coils
and breaks our ribs and squeezes our breath away.
There is no way out or round or through.

The bitter wisdom of the Sage
begins with the knowledge of vanity;
the multitude is not disposed to know
and so it will never know.
In the glass-walled formicary of this world,
the ants keep faith in the magical placations of their leaders, 
whose bigotries blossom into radiant cruelty.
The subservient fear-haunted mind
in its blind libidinous craving to exist
retreats into a sanctuary of jaded reassurance,
the idiot’s recital of the everyday.

There is no way out or round or through;
the way ahead is steeply up or steeply down.
May mind climb the rungs of the air
and the worm aspire to the stars?
To go steeply up is to cease to be human;
our heirs are creatures we know nothing of.

Gluttonous time devours us all;
the cherished delusion of recurrence is dead;
gravitation’s golden cord is frayed;
earth slows in its spinning,
and the years and days grow longer;
the equinoxes wobble in their precession;
night no longer follows day, nor day the night;
there are naught but new things under the dying sun;
we lie when we say we have seen them before.
There is no way out or round or through.

Now that mind,
that strange intruder,
that peculiar throb in matter,
is at its final ebb,
the grinning Antagonist goads us with the riddle:
“Is this all?”
For the more we reach the less we grasp
in saecula saeculorum—
for ever and ever.
Amen.

—Wim

Appeared in The Thieving Magpie, Issue 9, Spring 2020.

World’s Oldest String Found at French Neanderthal Site (poem)

Given the ongoing revelations of Neanderthal art and technology, it is difficult to see how we can regard Neanderthals as anything other than the cognitive equals of modern humans.

—Hardy, B.L., Moncel, M., Kerfant, C. et al. Direct evidence of Neanderthal fibre technology and its cognitive and behavioral implications. Sci Rep 10, 4889 (2020).

Ask the young tree
when the day gets pungent with blossoms
whether it is ready and willing
and if the tree says yes
let it start working.

The tree will glide the flint’s edge
through skin that bleeds
pale and clear as you cut it
skyward to earthward
then in crueler horizons
high and also low.

The skin will tease itself free
revealing its secret inner face
of infinite tendrils.
(The naked sinew of the tree
will taste sweet to the tongue.)

Three slim bundles
will strand off brightly
and sing their song of weaving
leading your fingers
whirling toward the river
while your wrist
bends ever toward the mountains
and the womb of your palms
gives birth to new vine
and the new vine’s secret.
We begin and we end
but it needs not be so

for the birthing of this vine
into its life of dance and song
does not have to stop
even as it dies behind us.
So may our birthing
yours and mine
partner ever with our dying
on and on and on
until

*

Poem appeared in Sisyphus, Summer 2020.

Photo by Neanderthal-Museum, Mettmann.
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The Cave of Euripides on Salamis Island (poem)

From I.O.U., Wim’s new book of poems, available at Amazon.com.

written for the dedication
of the William S.E. Coleman Studio Theatre,
June 18, 2016

But were you ever really here?
Did you sit here brooding upon this cave’s sullen lip
gazing over the bay of doves,
a shrouded exile from lies and war and treachery,
holding your worlds within?
Did you come away from Athens to this dead heart,
its throbbing chambers long since stilled and petrified,
its arteries and veins drained of their wine?
And were you ever really here?

This clay shard with letters of your name proves nothing.
Your acolytes came here seeking you;
finding nothing but an empty cave,
they wrote your name upon a bowl
and drank from it in prayer
and sang your verses to these deaf damp walls.
Your acolytes were fools
not to pass on through these walls of fog
into joys deeper than woe, time higher than thought;
for there is no firmament above our heads;
the starry void goes on forever;
our lives do not.

Let’s go away
and carry our riches to an empty room
that bears your name upon its door,
a space that’s rough, immediate, and holy,
where dreamers walk and dance
and sing their dreams awake to one another,
where sacred lies and probabilities abound,
where stories are told and worlds transfigured,
where stone chambers of the heart turn flesh again
pulsing with the sweet wine of eternity,
most terrible and gentle to us all.

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Q. & A. with Wim Coleman

Interview with Adelaide Books about Wim’s new book of poetry, I.O.U.:

Tell us a bit about yourself – something that we will not find in an official author’s bio?

i.o.u.-cover-3My father was a theater professor, director, playwright, and actor, so my very earliest memories are of attending rehearsals of plays he directed. In primal sort of way, this shaped how I’ve developed as a creative storyteller, whether I’m doing fiction, drama, or poetry. It also helped shape my growth as a person and how I view reality. Starting at the age of two, I watched actors slip in and out of character, oftentimes repeating the same actions and words over and over again, but in endless variations. These experiences left me with a lot of lifelong questions and obsessions. For example, what are the boundaries between life and performance, reality and imagination? How much of what we do every day and all the time is acting, and how much of it is really living—and is there really any difference? All my life I’ve observed those boundaries as constantly shifting. I’ve also come to see life itself as an act of creative storytelling.

Do you remember what was your first story (article, essay, or poem) about and when did you write it?

Again, my roots are in theater, so instead of getting published, I watched my plays go into rehearsals and production. Putting words on a page and then turning them over to actors is a true acid test. Putting those words in front of an audience takes things to an even tougher level. The process has taught me to make hard demands of myself as a writer, and to invent many personal rules of thumb. For example: If what you write is hard to speak aloud, it isn’t as good as it should be. Keep writing and saying it over and over again until it tastes good.

What is the title of your latest book and what inspired it?

It is called I.O.U., and it is my first collection of poetry. Although it’s a diverse and unruly bundle, it explores a single theme that permeates all of my writing, whether in fiction, nonfiction, drama, or poetry. That theme is Story (with a capital S). As my wife, Pat Perrin, and I once put it in a collaborative essay,

“Storytelling, like all art, like life, is an act of learning—of finding out. We are mistaken to assume that stories of transformation are only about transformation, mere illustrations. Instead, they are transformation itself, acts of practical alchemy, with the power to alter the reality of every receptive person they touch. (That’s why we must learn to recognize a hate-based tale in any garb, and admit that nothing holy feeds on pain.) As we live our stories and tell them, we learn what they are about … and they change … and they transform.”

That’s what all of my poetry is about. The title poem, “I.O.U.,” is a promise to stay true to this lifelong purpose.

How long did it take you to write your latest work and how fast do you write (how many words daily)?

I.O.U. is selection of poems I’ve written over the course of some 40 years. And some of the individual poems took almost that whole time to write, or at least to revise until that I was fairly happy with them. I don’t write many poems at one sitting. Only a few have popped out pretty much spontaneously. They often start that way, but the polishing can take years and years.

Most of my current writing, though, consists of ghostwriting. I do almost all of that in collaboration with my wife, Pat Perrin. We average more than 1000 words a day together doing that sort of work, sometimes much more. A couple of days ago we hit 7000 in order to make a deadline.

Do you have any unusual writing habits?

I suppose the most unusual aspect of my writing is that I do so much of it in collaboration. Pat Perrin and I have been writing together for more than 30 years, and we’ve published well over 100 books, including some that have gotten good attention, for example The Jamais Vu Papers (Crown, 1991), which has become something of a cult classic. Terminal Games (Bantam, 1994), which we wrote under the pseudonym Cole Perriman, was published in five foreign translations, discussed by literary critic N. Katherine Hayles in How We Became Posthuman, and taught in courses about literature and contemporary culture at several leading universities.

wim-drawing-1Is writing the only form of artistic expression that you utilize, or is there more to your creativity than just writing?

I draw when I can. I wish I had time to do a lot more drawing. I find it to be wonderfully meditative. A non-verbal form of artistic expression helps me to tap into brain areas that I don’t explore as much as I should. It actually makes me a better writer.

Authors and books that have influenced your writings?

The mind boggles! I don’t know where to begin, except to say that some of the thinkers who have had the most impact on me have not been poets, playwrights, and fiction writers, but philosophers, scientists, and historians. The psychologist Julian Jaynes’s 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind has shaped my worldview in ways that impact my work (and my life) every single day. I believe that many other writers, especially poets, feel the same way about Jaynes. He offers a revolutionary view of history, psychology, and human nature that challenges all kinds of received wisdom. Jaynes is also very controversial, but his ideas have achieved greater widespread acceptance than his critics like to admit. I tend to notice that most of his detractors don’t seem to have bothered to read his book. Reading his Origin a few decades ago blew my mind and changed my world. I’ve been reeling from it ever since.

What are you working on right now? Anything new cooking in the wordsmith’s kitchen?

I’ve been moving back toward writing drama lately. Weirdly, this is in part due to Covid and the isolation it has wreaked on everybody, especially people in the performing arts. In mid-2020, I was invited to join a “Cyber Salon” of amazingly gifted people, including multi-talented actors, poets, directors, and playwrights. Because they haven’t been able to get together for live, in-person performances, they’ve started meeting on Zoom. I’m lucky and honored to have been invited to join them. Every week we present some of our work to each other. For the first time in years, I’ve been able to hear my dramatic writing read and interpreted by actors again. It has been truly thrilling—and of course, often scary. I’m currently writing a full-length play which I’m working on with the Salon, and which I’m not ready to talk about yet.

Did you ever think about the profile of your readers? Who reads and who should read your books?

I think my poetry (and my other writing) appeals to people who are hungry for stories and metaphors for our troubled times, for something beyond a steady diet of what currently rates as literary. I’m sometimes told that my work fills a personal and cultural need. I certainly hope so. My typical readers are well-read but are not necessarily academically inclined. They read primarily for enjoyment, information, and enrichment. They also enjoy a fair amount of mental stimulation.

Do you have any advice for new writers/authors?

Never finish your apprenticeship. What I mean is, never get complacent in your assumptions of “mastery.” When it comes to poetry, take time to experiment with technique—with rhythm, rhyme, meter, and various forms. Study examples of all of these techniques. They’ll force you to deal with language in ways you never considered, and to develop skills that go far beyond simple technique. Even if you never plan to write rhyming poetry, try your hand at sonnets, ballads, villanelles, and so forth. And when you’re experimenting, don’t be afraid to be bad. It is absolutely impossible to learn without making mistakes—including real whoppers!

What is the best advice (about writing) you have ever heard?

I used to think Pat and I were the first and only people to say, “Write what you don’t know.” Now I realize that saying has been kicking around for a while, and that it gets said a lot these days. It’s excellent advice. The world has got plenty of writers turning in upon themselves and their personal experiences. There is always a dire need for writers who reach outward, who test their own boundaries, whose creative work (as all creative work should be) is an act of discovery. Always be learning about something. Stretch your brain. Read the news and lots of nonfiction. Learn about the world of ideas. Meet people outside your circle. You just might never suffer from “writer’s block” ever again. There’s just too much wonderful stuff out there to think about and experience. Life is rich.

How many books do you read annually and what are you reading now? What is your favorite literary genre?

I will only say that I read as much as I possibly can, and I wish I could read a whole lot more. Most of the books I read are nonfiction. I am currently reading The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality by Walter Scheidel. Not that I ignore fiction and poetry by any means. My reading last year included Milton’s Paradise Lost, Toni Morrison’s God Bless the Child, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind and the Willows, and an anthology of contemporary poetry called Legitimate Dangers. I’m eager to get back into re-reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, two towering and inexhaustible writers. I also read Shakespeare whenever I can; I’ve read everything in the canon at least two or three times. Oh, and the King James Bible.

What do you deem the most relevant about your writing? What is the most important to be remembered by readers?

One of the most common bits of advice a poet can get (or give) is “Find your own voice.” Instead, I look for other voices. I use my training as an actor and a playwright to try to create compelling and entertaining voices and characters. My poems tell stories. I also think that one of the key ingredients of a good poem is surprise. I try to bring surprise to my poems—surprise, thought, passion, and sometimes laughter.

Adrienne Rich once wrote, “A language is a map of our failures.” Poetry happens when words set us free from language. It is a liberation from unwitting collective prisons of thought and habit, for language binds us in more ways than we know. Fresh images, metaphors, and stories bring new vitality to our world of words and to our lives. I hope I contribute to that process of perpetual renewal.

I also agree with the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai that all poetry is political:

“This is because real poems deal with a human response to reality, and politics is part of reality, history in the making. Even if a poet writes about sitting in a glass house drinking tea, it reflects politics.”

In these days when the forces of oligarchy, bigotry, ignorance, privilege, and autocracy threaten to consume America and much of the world, poetry keeps us alive to the value of freedom, democracy, equality, and human decency. Every poem is an act of resistance.

What is your opinion about the publishing industry today and about the ways authors can best fit into the new trends?

Hunter S. Thompson once said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” Writers are weird people and these are weird times. And you no longer have to be like the proverbial lonely teenager sitting by the proverbial phone, waiting for some Grand Pooh-Bah to deign to publish your work (mixaphorically speaking!). The possibilities for sharing and promulgating what you write are like nothing that’s ever been imagined in human history. The world hasn’t seen an age like this since Gutenberg. Throw yourself into it. Don’t miss a minute of it.

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