A Scene for Puppets and/or Humans, Based on the “Para” Paintings of Neo Rauch
by Patrick Harrison
“I understand myself to be a director of plays.” – Neo Rauch (1969- )
“The infinite cannot traverse the finite.” – Aristotle, Physics
Die Flamme (The Flame), 2007
Vorort (Suburb), 2007
Post-War America, in one of those American towns where such temporal distinctions lose their meaning.
A proscenium divided in thirds. The left two thirds are foreground, the interior of a small convenience store. Behind the counter is a man who smokes only one cigarette that burns down forever without ever going out. The right third is a suburban street, lined with houses, that goes on forever. Far in the distance there is an intersecting road that runs parallel to the audience. Even further back, at the vanishing point, is the Thing.
The Thing is hurtling toward the foreground from the vanishing point, but never gets any closer. The Thing looks like a train, and spews out a long tail of black smoke into the clear blue sky. Maybe it is a train, but it sounds like an airplane, or, at any rate, the hum of an approaching, low-flying airplane is heard throughout the scene, rising in pitch and volume with agonizing slowness.
Foreground right, a person stands in the middle of the street with a radio and semaphore flags. His back is to the audience; we never see his face. He appears to be communicating with the Thing using semaphore: the Thing squawks to him over the radio; he responds in semaphore. Occasionally he looks through binoculars at the Thing.
Elaborate, explanatory semaphore.
During the answering semaphore, a man appears on the distant, parallel road, turns onto the main street, walking to the foreground. On his way down the street, he blocks the Thing’s view of the semaphore man, making communication difficult. The new man wears a backpack laden with something heavy. Attached two his shoes are two large vertical wooden planks. When he walks, the planks block his view and strike his head. Though appearing to walk at a vigorous pace, he covers ground slowly, as though the earth were out from under his feet. His path winds wildly left and right down the straight road.
Visibly tired, the plank-wearing man arrives and enters the store. During the scene that follows, the man and the clerk figure do not look each other in the eye, but instead are looking past each other just to the left or the right, like two blind people talking to one another. They do not seem to be aware of this. They are cheerful and enthusiastic, but their congeniality masks a debilitating fear without object.
The action outside the store overlaps the scene within.
Clerk: You’re late.
Man: I’m early.
Immediately and alarm clock on the counter goes off.
Clerk: You’re cutting it close.
Man: There will be time to be early later.
They regard each other.
Clerk: It’s good to see you. It’s been a long time.
Man: Not that long.
Clerk: No, but it feels like forever.
Man: It does.
They shake hands. The man removes his planks, setting them against the wall like skis, and unpacks a box from his backpack.
Clerk: How are those planks working out for you?
Man: Oh great! They make walking much more difficult.
Man: Yes! Thank you very much for the recommendation.
Clerk: They look swell on you too.
Man: Thank you.
He hands the box to the clerk in exchange for a wad of cash, puts the cash in his wallet and puts the wallet back in his pocket. Simultaneously:
Clerk: Well, what’ll it be?
Man: Hmm… (scanning the merchandise) Well, how about what’s in the box?
The clerk removes from the box a Russian doll, rings it up on the cash register, and hands it to the man in exchange for more money than the clerk had just paid him.
During the course of the conversation, the two have a series of exchanges: The clerk buys a layer of the Russian doll. The Man buys the layer back. The clerk buys the layer back as well as the next layer. The Man buys back the latter layer. Et cetera. The doll is never reassembled as one: more and more dolls are produced by the transactions, increasing in number to create an implausible multiplicity of dolls. The amount of money changing hands increases similarly. Each time the clerk methodically rings everything up on the register, and each time the man methodically removes and replaces his wallet from/to his pocket. Maybe they must use the box and the dolls to hold all the money, maybe they toss Russian dolls filled with money like footballs across the store. It is a spectacle that proceeds with machinic precision and increasing speed. Their bodies labor with increasing difficulty. It takes as long as it needs to.
Clerk: I can only use a treadmill these days.
Man: Well, the great thing about the planks they’re like a treadmill that goes places.
Clerk: Yes, we don’t all have time to stay at home on the treadmill not going anywhere.
Man: That’s for sure. Wouldn’t mind it though!
Clerk: Yes, indeed, not at all!
Man: Though they do make walking even more difficult.
Clerk: How is your little girl?
Man: (proud) Yes, indeed!
On the intersecting street in the distance, a marching band playing patriotic tunes passes by for a while, heard only faintly in the distance. They do not obstruct our view of the Thing, which has grown taller but remains still obscure on the horizon.
Semaphore, including the motions of a marching band drum major.
Clerk: Goodness me, it wasn’t but yesterday she was just a young thing helping me here at the store.
Man: I know.
Clerk: How long is it been since… They grow up so fast.
Clerk: But no matter how old she get, she’ll always be your little girl.
Man: No matter how.
Clerk: No matter how.
Frantic panicked squawking.
Frantic, panicked semaphore.
Clerk: Who is the lucky fellow?
Man: A military man, a fine young man. In the Army. From this town: Harrison boy?
Clerk: Hmm… (The clerk shakes his head: “Don’t know him.”)
Man: ’parently they’d been going with each other since high school! And here me not knowing a thing about it!
Clerk: Well kids will be—
There is an emergency. Frantic, panicked squawking and semaphore goes on continuously for the rest of this conversation. This is not just a senseless frenzy: it is deadly serious, like panicked 911 calls or a heated argument in sign language.
Man: Not like I would have minded. Tom and Betsy’s are good people and the military is a fine—
The clerk is unable to restrain his laughter any longer. There money exchanges are going at a more and more breakneck pace.
Man: (amused) What? What’s so funny?
Clerk: I knew’d all about it, tee hee! About your girl and the Harrison boy when they were kids, tee hee!
Clerk: Oh he’d come by here so often just to talk to her that it wasn’t hard to intuit.
Man: (beaming) Nooo!
Clerk: I never could believe you didn’t know, though, though you didn’t seem to.
Man: Why didn’t you tell me?
Clerk: Well, I didn’t think there could be no harm in it. They’re good kids. And it was fun feelin like an accomplice in them putting over their folks. That’s the best part of being young.
Man: I suppose it is.
Clerk: Besides, didn’t know anything, I just felt it.
Man: Hmph. Well I’m just tickled. I guess you did right.
The clerk smiles.
Clerk: No, no, it was your little girl did right. How is the new couple getting along?
Man: (hiding his reticence) Well… he’s been stationed abroad.
Clerk: Aw, your little girl is far away from you, huh?
Man: They’re in Berlin.
Clerk. (suddenly concerned) Oh.
For a heavy moment, they do not speak, though they continue their economic exchanges with even greater exertion. The squawking of the radio and the mad twirling of semaphore flags reaches a fever pitch.
Man: Yes, they say it is lovely there.
Clerk: I bet it is. I bet it is.
Another heavy moment. They throw the full capacity of their bodies into their rapid, machinic exchanges.
Clerk: And how is your boy?
The Man fumbles the Russian doll and money and dolls explode everywhere in a loud crash.
The squawking abruptly goes silent, the semaphore man instantly freezes, drops his flags, and looks through his binoculars at the Thing. The marching band finally exits, its music drowned out by the sound of the approaching Thing, which we now hear by itself for the first time since the beginning of the Scene, much louder and more belligerent.
Clerk: You all right?
Man: Yes I’m fine. I… I’m sorry, I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night.
Clerk: It’s fine, it’s fine.
Man: My hands were little… I lost my grip.
Clerk: Sure, sure, sure, that’s fine.
They pick up the money and dolls.
Clerk: More of them bad dreams… keeping you up?
Man: Yes… They’re not dreams, they’re called night terrors.
Short, bursts of squawking, as though the signal were going in and out. Through out the rest of this conversation, the transmissions and the semaphore will occur continuously. The squawking is calm, musical, and continuous: a monologue rather than a dialogue. The semaphore is equally placid: its movements are smooth and continuous, like a strange dance, expressive rather than communicative.
Inside the store, the Man is clearly shattered, barely maintaining his composure.
Clerk: They’re like nightmares…?
Man: They’re bad like nightmares ’cept they’re not dreams like nightmares. They’re not about anything. You just feel afraid… anxious…
Clerk: I see.
Man: But not about anything in particular, like monsters or some kind of danger… like being on stage without lines or being on top of some great big height… You’re not afraid of anything in particular. You’re just afraid. Can’t put a name on it.
Clerk: (uncomfortable) I see.
Man: Sometimes my wife wakes me up from them, and I don’t know who I am.
A long pause in conversation and activity. We listen to the Thing and the gentle flapping of semaphore flags in the silence.
Clerk: (changing the subject) They say the planes are coming soon.
Man: Yes. Wonder when they’re gonna get here.
As in cinema, an “iris out” transition to black, centered on the Thing.