The Topic At Hand: Seconds

Lights up on Gertrude Stein’s Salon. We see daylight, tinged with sunset, streaming through a large window. GERTRUDE STEIN is poised on a pile of pillows, and surrounded by her gallery of paintings. They are, in fact, modern masterpieces, climbing the walls, toward the ceiling. She contemplates her portrait, the one painted by Picasso. Seated to her left is PABLO PICASSO, himself. Picasso contemplates Stein, herself. Seated to Stein’s right is ERNEST HEMINGWAY, who contemplates nothing.

HEMINGWAY: It still doesn’t look like you.

STEIN: It wouldn’t be nearly as haunting if it did.

HEMINGWAY: Did you really pose for it ninety times? I don’t remember it being this big.

STEIN: My reputation was smaller when he painted it.

HEMINGWAY: So was Picasso’s.

STEIN: What do you want from me?

HEMINGWAY: What do I want from that portrait?

STEIN: The truth?

HEMINGWAY: The more I publish, the more elusive it is.

STEIN: The truth?

HEMINGWAY: And the writing.

STEIN: And the difference is what?

HEMINGWAY: We struggle with one, then the other.

STEIN: Chicken or egg?

HEMINGWAY: Chicken.

STEIN: Oh no, egg. And I never struggle.

HEMINGWAY: With language? Yes, you do.

STEIN: I play.

PICASSO: Ah.

(Picasso will say “Ah” whenever he sees form.)

(ALICE B. TOKLAS enters. She is stiff, formal and vigilant, like an overbearing maitre’ d. JEAN COCTEAU follows in a dandy’s suit and colorful tie. He glides, theatrically, through the Salon.)

TOKLAS: Another unexpected guest.

COCTEAU: You invited me, no?

STEIN: You never turn up.

COCTEAU: Turn up? Am I but a flower? Bending toward the sun?

STEIN: I would never use such a florid metaphor.

HEMINGWAY: Cocteau would.

COCTEAU: And by making the prosaic poetic, I would astonish. Watch my hands bend toward the sun.

(Cocteau frames Stein’s face with either hand. She smiles, despite herself.)

COCTEAU: Do you mind if I smoke?

HEMINGWAY: I don’t mind if you burst into flames.

COCTEAU: It will give me something to do with these beautiful hands.

(Cocteau lets his artistic hands rest below his own face.)

TOKLAS: No pipe smoking.

COCTEAU: No opium in this den?

TOKLAS: Please behave yourself, Monsieur Cocteau.

COCTEAU: Well?

TOKLAS: Well what?

COCTEAU: A cigarette?

TOKLAS: We don’t smoke.

COCTEAU: We? How fortunate Gertrude Stein is to have someone speak for her.

(Hemingway lights a cigarette and hands it to Cocteau.)

HEMINGWAY: Your drawings speak for you well enough.

COCTEAU: Yes, they are poetry.

HEMINGWAY: A drawing is a drawing.

TOKLAS: Is a drawing is a drawing.

PICASSO: Ah.

COCTEAU: (Glances up.) Augh! Why did you ever let Picasso paint you?

STEIN: I could never refuse genius.

HEMINGWAY: Genius?!

COCTEAU: Augh! And you hung it?

STEIN: It’s been hanging there for decades.

HEMINGWAY: Those aren’t your eyes.

STEIN: They’re Picasso’s.

COCTEAU: Augh! The stare! It pains me! I need air!

(Cocteau plops at the window and draws deeply on the cigarette.)

TOKLAS: Why is he here?

COCTEAU: You can’t ask me yourself?

STEIN: Why are you here?

COCTEAU: (Shrugs.) I came to smoke.

STEIN: And assume a posture.

COCTEAU: See how my suit and tie compliment the velvet cushions?

STEIN: Has Scribners set a date for A Farewell To Arms?

HEMINGWAY: So they tell me.

STEIN: I’m thinking your protagonist should be an ambulance driver, like you were. Not a soldier.

HEMINGWAY: Thanks for the tip, but you haven’t even read it.

STEIN: When a soldier is wounded, it’s tragedy. When an ambulance driver is wounded —

COCTEAU: — it’s absurd.

HEMINGWAY: You weren’t there.

COCTEAU: Oh no?

HEMINGWAY: When a bomb detonates, when shrapnel slices your leg —

COCTEAU: — I drove an ambulance in the Great War.

HEMINGWAY: You didn’t.

STEIN: He did.

COCTEAU: It was absurd.

HEMINGWAY: It was hell.

COCTEAU: Hell would astonish.

HEMINGWAY: That war was devastating.

COCTEAU: Art is devastating, hell is astonishing.

PICASSO: Ah.

STEIN: Did you know that Ernest has a war wound on his leg?

HEMINGWAY: I do.

STEIN: Do you have a wound from driving your ambulance?

COCTEAU: I have my wounded heart. I fell in love with so many, they were so brave, so young, so beautiful, and KA-BOOM! The bombs…

HEMINGWAY: You never set foot in the battlefield.

COCTEAU: The soldiers loved me. They shielded me from combat. They would take bullets for me.

HEMINGWAY: In your dreams.

COCTEAU: And furthermore, a bomb wouldn’t dare explode near me.

(Cocteau sits at the window and smokes. Hemingway grabs a book from the shelf.)

COCTEAU: What have you there?

HEMINGWAY: Tender Buttons, by Gertrude Stein.

STEIN: Put it back.

HEMINGWAY: Sylvia lets me borrow books from her shop as if it were a library.

STEIN: I am not Sylvia Beach, and this is hardly a library.

HEMINGWAY: When will you read my novel?

COCTEAU: Have you finished mine?

HEMINGWAY: Your what?

STEIN: His novel. It’s devastating.

HEMINGWAY: It is?

COCTEAU: Is it?

STEIN: Les Enfants Terribles. He wrote it in three weeks.

COCTEAU: I wrote it in a clinic.

HEMINGWAY: A clinic.

COCTEAU: I went in for the cure.

STEIN: Not for drinking, Ernest.

COCTEAU: Opium.

HEMINGWAY: You hid in a clinic and wrote a novel?

COCTEAU: I went to hell, it was hardly hiding. I came back with a book.

HEMINGWAY: Horseshit.

COCTEAU: My unconscious self kindly allowed me to become its scribe and dictated my book to me.

HEMINGWAY: Hah!

STEIN: And how long did it take you to write your book?

HEMINGWAY: It’s taken my whole life, because I have lived it!

COCTEAU: I wrote about seventeen pages a day, but I barely remember. I don’t think I slept, it was like the dreams.

STEIN: Opium dreams have their own logic.

COCTEAU: Strange and beautiful, until they turn. Always, a sinister turn.

STEIN: That’s Cocteau’s novel. Lovely, sinister, riveting. I read it overnight, couldn’t put it down.

(Stein raises Cocteau’s manuscript.)

COCTEAU: Put it down, please. I am awash in humility.

STEIN: Oh?

COCTEAU: I took communion this morning.

PICASSO: Voodoo.

STEIN: For gods sakes, why?

COCTEAU: I will not go to hell. Not again. The torments? Insufferable. No rhyme… No reason…

PICASSO: Weak. Superstitious. Pathetic.

(Hemingway raises Stein’s book.)

HEMINGWAY: (Mocking.) “You do see that halve rivers and harbours, halve rivers and harbours, you do see that halve rivers and harbors makes halve rivers and harbours and you do see that you do not have rivers and harbours when you halve rivers and harbours, you do see that you can halve rivers and harbours.”

STEIN: Rhyme and reason.

HEMINGWAY: It’s sausage, by the yard.

PICASSO: You’re making me hungry.

HEMINGWAY: If you had a conscience, you’d publish a translation.

STEIN: A conscience? Is this more of your hollow moralizing?

(Off, a tea kettle whistles. It’s shrill.)

TOKLAS: The kettle boils.

(Toklas exits.)

HEMINGWAY: The protagonist in your novel is damned, isn’t he?

COCTEAU: There are two, brother and sister, in Les Enfant Terribles.

HEMINGWAY: And you deny them salvation? But pray for your own?

COCTEAU: My two young darlings are not religious, they live to be free.

HEMINGWAY: Said the man who took communion this morning.

STEIN: Cocteau’s book has its own logic.

HEMINGWAY: Stein’s logic. Style for the sake of style.

PICASSO: For God’s sake, shut up, all of you. (They shut up; a beat.) Tell Toklas to bring me a pastry.

STEIN: She serves me, not you.

PICASSO: Which is why I asked you, not her.

STEIN: And I’m here to serve you?

PICASSO: You sat for that portrait.

STEIN: Yes, and the portrait serves me very well.

COCTEAU: It’s unnerving.

(Toklas enters, distraught.)

TOKLAS: We have an uninvited guest.

HEMINGWAY: Here we are, the Uninvited.

TOKLAS: No, the three of you were invited, but unexpected. T.S. Eliot is among the Uninvited.

COCTEAU: One of the Hollow Men?

TOKLAS: One of the anti-Semites.

STEIN: We needn’t bang on about that tonight.

PICASSO: Why not?

STEIN: Because we can rise above it. Bring him in.

TOKLAS: Are we sure we want to do that?

STEIN: He wrote a few verses with stupid stereotypes. What of it? It’s not as if there are pogroms here in Paris, now are there?

HEMINGWAY: This is going to be good.

(Toklas exits. Murmuring, off.)

HEMINGWAY: Miss Stein could bring us a pastry.

COCTEAU: She could?

STEIN: The problem is I would have to get up.

(Toklas enters, T.S. ELIOT follows. He is a bit of a stiff, in his smart suit and gray spats. The air turns heavy with his entrance; Gertrude Stein has a rival.)

ELIOT: I’m intruding?

STEIN: The question is why?

ELIOT: I saw you this afternoon, at the wheel of your Ford. Miss Toklas at your side. Sylvia Beach tells me the Ford is called “Godiva”?

STEIN: “Godiva” replaced “Auntie”.

TOKLAS: “Auntie” is in the junkyard.

STEIN: “Godiva” is a modern girl.

PICASSO: Ah.

ELIOT: You cut quite a figure, wind in your hair, sun in your eyes, motoring along the Champs-Élysées on this heartbreakingly beautiful day.

STEIN: We were speeding home from the bakery.

ELIOT: I did see the baker’s boxes stacked on the seat. And a big white poodle. Sylvia tells me you call him “Basket?” Yes, you cut quite a figure, and I found myself wishing I were a photographer. Or better yet, a painter. In awe of what I saw, it hit me in a moment, flying past… as you flew past… Words would fail me, as they do, as they will, but what I saw, in that moment, is alive in my minds eye, still. (He admires the paintings…) How I envy the painter, how I love these paintings! I remember them so well, and it occurred to me… I found myself reminiscing about our one and only meeting, here at 27 rue de Fleurus… It occurred to me that I might revisit them.

STEIN: You were here just the once?

ELIOT: Mmm… in 1924…

TOKLAS: You were kind enough to interpret “The Wasteland.”

STEIN: More of an apology, really.

ELIOT: I apologized?

STEIN: You distanced yourself from its despair.

ELIOT: Despair, as a means to an end.

STEIN: I rather see “The Wasteland” as an end unto itself.

ELIOT: It is much more than that.

STEIN: Sylvia Beach tells me you’ve undergone a conversion.

ELIOT: Have I?

STEIN: To Anglicanism.

TOKLAS: Sylvia says Anglicanism is just a stone’s throw from Catholicism.

HEMINGWAY: Actually it’s a stone’s throw from Protestantism.

TOKLAS: Which you knew all too well, before you converted to Catholicism for your second wife, Mr. Hemingway.

COCTEAU: Sylvia Beach says I have converted to Surrealism.

(They all ignore Cocteau, which is absurd. A jangling telephone rings, it sounds odd, and surreal. Toklas exits to answer it.)

ELIOT: And what have you converted to, Miss Stein?

STEIN: Invention.

HEMINGWAY: I’ve converted to Sensation.

COCTEAU: Sensation?

HEMINGWAY: Imagine a silvery lining, between the body and the soul. That’s the sensation of life, a totality, all there, in a moment, hanging by a thread, suspended in the present. Not in fragments, thoughts are not distractions. For once in your life there is sensation. So precious. Of life. And it ends? Can you imagine Despair more exquisite, Mr. Eliot? Now, imagine sensation arriving at random, like a missile, a missile that actually is a missile in a war that is not your war… KA-BOOM!

COCTEAU: The bombs…

HEMINGWAY: Shrapnel blasts your leg to shreds, tendons, veins, strings… Can you imagine? No? Imagine your angels in a shimmering sky, Monsieur Cocteau. But something’s on the horizon. You can see it, you do see it, I see it in your eyes. Concussive flashes of yellow-orange, then red, surging in the night. Clouds, fog, laced with smoke, hidden by darkness, flashing forward, billowing toward you, the blinding force of light looming in the dark, pressing your face, ruffling your hair. Pouf… A sound, softer, in the distance, stalking the night, speeding closer, incrementally, the dread science of it all somehow poetic, no mere idea, the Fire breaks the air before your face and runs through you. Perfectly.

COCTEAU: Hell.

HEMINGWAY: No, it’s sublime.

ELIOT: And awe-inspiring.

HEMINGWAY: Far beyond awe. It’s the face of… Well, if God exists, he may not have a face. But that would be Him, approaching.

(Cocteau is deeply disturbed by the speech. He extends his beautiful hand. Hemingway reaches for it, reluctantly. Cocteau opens it to reveal an exquisitely carved opium pipe.)

PICASSO: Such a beautiful pipe.

STEIN: What a still life.

PICASSO: Without Cocteau.

STEIN: Shall we push him out the window so you can paint the rest?

PICASSO: Too violent.

STEIN: You could push him with words.

PICASSO: Words are your strength.

(Cocteau lights the opium.)

COCTEAU: I awaken from one dream only to find myself in another.

HEMINGWAY: Surrealism.

COCTEAU: How would I know a dream? How would any of us know? It may very well be that life is just the stuff of dreams. I dream you. You dream me. We dream we do. That’s all I see.

ELIOT: How very Hindu.

STEIN: Here we are. Simultaneous. Multi-faceted. Fictitious.

PICASSO: How very Cubist.

ELIOT: Cubism is dead.

COCTEAU: Long live Surrealism.

STEIN: Surrealism is nothing. Within an enigma. Wrapped inside a joke.

COCTEAU: Out there, in the garden, beyond the lilies, would be a wood, guarded by centaurs. Hanging from the branches are the suicides. It’s overrun by the warmongers and the tyrants and they stare, endlessly, with their great, dark eyes… I still pay for the war. I’m still ridding myself of fatigue and disgust. Tics and dizziness gone, but the toxic smell still clings to these hands.

(Cocteau draws on the opium pipe with a religious intensity.)

HEMINGWAY: What about the clinic and your cure?

COCTEAU: (Shrugs.) It gives me my second chances.

HEMINGWAY: You only get one.

COCTEAU: Maybe you do.

STEIN: That’s what religion is for.

HEMINGWAY: No, you get only one second chance.

COCTEAU: You take your chances, I’ll take mine.

(Through a veil of opium smoke, Cocteau contemplates Picasso’s portrait of Stein.)

STEIN: It still doesn’t look like me.

COCTEAU: The eyes? Staring endlessly… Those great, dark eyes…

PICASSO: Ah.

******

Dramatis Personae

Gertrude Stein: 55 Legendary mentor in creative circles in Paris in the 20s. American expatriate, host to countless artists in her Salon.
Alice B. Toklas: 51 Fiercely loyal domestic partner of Gertrude Stein.
Ernest Hemingway: 28 Up and coming writer whose celebrated life is threatening to eclipse his talent as an innovative writer of modern fiction.
Jean Cocteau: 39 French artist and bon vivant of a certain cultivated style.
Pablo Picasso: 47 Legendary Spanish genius and womanizer.
T.S. Eliot: 40 Celebrated poet of his era, intense and conflicted about his religious conversion.

Scene
Gertrude Stein’s Salon on 27 rue de Fleurus, Paris.

Time
Spring, 1929, late afternoon.

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    • Rachel Hile

      What a delight to read this, especially Cocteau's little speech about the wood with the centaurs, with the suicides hanging from the trees. He can't simply be alluding to Dante but must instead be alluding to Dante-Through-Eliot, but then I can't get any further in the interpretive woods. It's as though you've brought Eliot in to inflect the meaning of what Cocteau says—reminding us of his use of Dante in The Waste Land, reminding us of conversion and its importance to his poetry. That is, it seems that Eliot arrives uninvited in order to shed light on Cocteau, but I'm still a bit confused about what that light is, especially given the complication of not quite knowing whether to read The Waste Land as being about conversion (I do—I can't help it) or not. I'd be delighted to have more illumination from you (though I recognize that explanations would be very un-Surrealist), but at any rate, it's been a pleasure reading this and thinking about religion, communion, and hell.

      • brianfbeatty

        Well, as someone who reads the Wasteland as being about the aftermath of the War to end all Wars, I'm not sure how illuminating I can be. I do think, however, that Cocteau's unlikely belief in second chances pivots on The Inferno imagery. You must be well attuned to Dante, Rachel.

        Cocteau's surreal dream would be haunted by the older Christian symbols, Eliot's poetry would try to update them and restrict Cocteau to a world more psychological, less imaginative, and a lot like the sensational early fiction of Hemingway. Beyond that, I'll let this short play (which was later expanded into a longer work) stand on it's own and spare you my intentions and shortfalls.

        And I'll leave poor Cocteau on the windowsill, caught in-between.

    • Fascinating that Cocteau and Hemingway were both ambulance drivers. That could be a movie in itself…

      • brianfbeatty

        Does this mean you'll be writing a treatment?

    The Author

    Brian F. Beatty

    brian.beatty
    Brian F. Beatty is a dramatist, blogger and résumé writer trafficking in the gray areas in between. He has an illicit love for the rambling biographies that inspired Aftermath, The Mother of Invention, and Rumors of War, his trilogy of plays set between the two World Wars. Brian is the founder and principal of Key Resume Writers. He is also a loyal resident of Park Slope, Brooklyn.

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