— From the Fool —
Some guy said, Oh, you’re the Fool from a Shakespeare show. Who, me? Yeh, you, you call the old king an asshole and stuff. You’re famous.
So I went to the show to see me in it. I didn’t like it much.
First off, the kid playing me wasn’t funny. Nobody’s going to hire a Fool that’s not funny. Even if it’s just fart jokes, you have to deliver.
Second, this kid was telling four-hundred-year-old jokes. You can only go so far with old routines.
Third, it was this wispy young twit playing me, moping around like some high school kid flunking algebra. What king wants a Fool with the sniffles?
You don’t have to look ugly, but it helps. Me with a bald head, frizzy sideburns, big nose, doggy face, built like a fireplug and laughing like an ass — I am memorable. You look at me, you think, That’s the Fool. Can’t mistake me for the hair dresser.
People think the Fool’s got free speech. Yes, I can call the king an asshole. “Nuncle, thou art an asshole,” I can say, and they won’t cut out my tongue. But they can shove my face in the cat pan. They can whip me bloody and beat me blue. They can throw cole slaw at me.
The main thing is this: the Fool is the guy who gets crapped on.
Royalty craps on people. But royalty don’t like to think of it that way, so the Fool makes it funny. The Fool’s made of rubber and bounces right back. The Fool’s a pet dog you torment for fun, and it only bites with toothless gums. The Fool pretends to eat his own hand from hunger, so hunger becomes a joke.
That takes talent. So crap on me, but crap with respect.
— From CB—
We’re launching another round of our house-concert drama Gifts — which involves unexpected gifts, unrecognized gifts, true gifts — while starting on our next, King Lear. The seed of that tragedy also is a gift: the division of a kingdom. Or is it?
Which of you shall we say doth love us most, That we our largest bounty may extend Where merit doth most challenge it?
What am I bid for my generosity? What’s fair market value for your love? Benevolence to the highest bidder. Love as commodity.
For me, King Lear depicts the blindness of power and the desperate thirst for a love that’s corrupted by it. Lear, Gloucester, Edmund, Edgar, the sisters, Cordelia, Kent, the Fool — all at some point cry out for deep human bonding. For all, the door is slammed. Lear goes mad, but the madness is systemic.
Lewis Hyde in his seminal book The Gift quotes a Woody Allen line: “This watch is an heirloom: my grandfather sold it to me on his deathbed.” Lear has sold his kingdom for a mess of verbiage, then denounces his daughters for what he’s made them: addicts of power. Cursing Goneril, he conjures the Goddess to “dry up her organs of increase,” but in this land there are no organs of increase, no intercourse of love. At best, sex is a tool; at worst, it’s diseased. “Whoremaster man” commodifies it and blames it all on the stars.
That’s the starting point of Lear’s cruel striptease down to nakedness. Some see redemption in the onset of true vision — seeing himself as he is — as his illusions fall away. Yet even when utterly bereft, he dies in one final hiccup of illusion — Cordelia may still breathe — and the final speech of the play gives us no hope of a brighter future. The best we can hope for, it implies, is not to live so damned long.
Then why tell this story? Don’t we get enough atrocity in the daily news? I could say, well, there’s value in truth, and this plumbs a very deep truth. I could say it contains beacons of light. I could say that its depiction of blindness is intended to open our eyes. But in fact, seeking that “why” is the very reason we’re willing to spend fifteen months of our diminishing lifespans working on this. If the tiger were in the cage, the lost pyramid found, and the mountain of gold dust panned, there’d be no reason to launch the quest. We have to hold faith that in a year and a quarter, when we come onto stage to perform it, the “why” will blaze forth.
— From EF—
About thirty years ago, after we’d had a full-length play done at the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, they commissioned us to write a monologue, which we did. That’s not really an accurate description — Conrad sort of sat down at a keyboard and channeled it. Then he read it to me, and I wept. Right then and there Edna was a living being.
We were paid, but they didn’t produce it, and I felt as if this poor woman had been consigned to Limbo. For me, she was real. She owned and ran a lunch counter, the kind of hangout familiar to anybody who grew up in a small town, and it was a good life — until something totally surreal changed everything, and she needed to tell somebody about it.
Five years later, she got a chance to do that. We were opening a duo show that was a little too short for a full evening. So we needed a curtain-raiser, and the fact that Action News was pretty off-the-wall reminded us of Edna. There was a little dithering about which of us should play the role, because CB’s first reading of it knocked me out. But we figured that cross-gender would be pushing it, and we settled on me.
I was blessed. I trusted Edna completely to take audiences where she needed to go, and we all went there together. After a year or so of touring rep, she retired — until last fall, when she came back in tandem with Gifts at the Pontine Theatre in New Hampshire.
This is not a real person, it’s a dramatic character, a fictional entity, but I love her. Now we’re working and re-working her monologue as a short story, tacking this way and that to make it live on the page with the luminosity it had on stage. For me it’s the same goal — Edna wants people to hear her story.
Over the decades, we have created so many characters who have put hooks in our hearts, and when there’s no way for their voices to be heard, it’s like losing a dear friend. We spent over a year in collaboration with a third writing partner, writing and refining a couple of screenplays. One of them is a painfully sweet San Francisco love story with two characters we wish we could invite home for a glass of wine, but they may spend eternity echoing back and forth in our memories.
Creation is a dicey thing. I feel a great kinship to my plum tree. She puts out flowers and then is dependent on flirtatious bees. She does or does not manifest red juicy fruit, which may or may not get eaten. Then all her leaves fall off, and the cycle starts again.
Sometimes I feel that I am no more real than Edna is, that we are both a product of the human need to experience a story, to be totally real and in the moment, and that we exist only in the mind of the beholder. Perhaps this is the ultimate definition of community — we all co-create each other.
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