Saturday, June 18, 2011

Maxwell Bodenheim and Ben Hecht THE MASTER POISONER

by Maxwell Bodenheim & Ben Hecht

The following one-act play is reprinted from Minna and Myself. Maxwell Bodenheim. (New York: Pagan Publishing Company, 1918).

Sobe - The Pisoner
Fana - His Wife
Maldor - His Assistant

[The Poisoner's living-room. Purple velvet draperies embroidered with huge lavendar and orange lilies hang over the rear wall, completely covering it. One great scarlet cushion, four feet high and five feet wide, stands at the center of the wall against the draperies. The right and left walls have two small, narrow windows near the top, through which a dimly glowing light pours, forming a triangle as it strikes the floor. A narrow tall entrance blocked by orange-colored portieres stands in the center of the right and left walls. The floor is black and uncovered. A huge black candle three inches wide and five feet high emerges from a black urn in the center of the floor, bisecting the triangle formed by the two streams of pale light. White and scarlet cushions are scattered about the floor. On two of these cushions sit Sobe, the Poisoner, and Maldor, his Assistant. They sit to the left and right of the candle, eyeing each other with a softly-smiling melancholy. Sobe is tall, black-bearded, condor-faced, and clad in an orange robe, and black sandals. Maldor is short and smooth-shaven, with the face of a sleepy girl. He wears a white robe and sandals.]

MALDOR: [puzzled and wistful, speaks softly to the Poisoner] A secretion from the intestines of the cane-rat found in the Hwang-Ho river, sprinkled with the pollen of jasmine-flowers, produces a most wonderful poison, O Master. When dropped into the eyes of a virgin, this poison will cause her face to contract in a twitching crescendo.
SOBE: [speaks listlessly] The eyes of a virgin are too blank for a poisoner's relish.
MALDOR: [speaks with eager, hopeful emphasis] The virgin, O Master, provides only the unimportant tinge to the process. The relish lies in the pompous complexity of the poison.
SOBE: Complexity is but a shattered mirror.
MALDOR: [still hopeful] From the irridescent dimples of the Medusae fish I have extracted a saffron liquid, O Master, which mixed with the larvae of dragon flies, completes a most satisfactory poison. Administered in microscopic doses, it creates ribbons of flame in the blood and its enchanting victim expires, glowing with strange, phosphorescent colors.
SOBE: I am sick of suavely terrifying poisons.
MALDOR: [speaks wistfully] What strange delicacy makes you almost brutal tonight, O Master?
SOBE: [speaks as to himself] Wearisome poisons. A droll flutter . . . and then always that dainty monotony--death.
MALDOR: [speaks swiftly] But surely our work still holds you, O Master. You have not become reconciled to the empty ferocity of death!
SOBE: [speaks gently] Ah, Maldor, our poisons lend their little flourishes merely to life. I would like to poison death.
MALDOR: [speaks aggrievedly] But master, those cringing writhings, those indelicate squirmings and jocund acrobatics which our most fastidious poisons produce--what more tender satisfaction!
SOBE: [listlessly] They are but interludes leaving me languidly envious of death, my master.
MALDOR: [speaks with indignation] You have no master! Your last poison of moth-blood produced an effect so exquisitely monstrous that even death was appalled. Ah, the bones of an old woman, dissolving within her, left her body, a loose grimace.
SOBE: I am sick of all these sterile grimaces.
MALDOR: [speaks slowly] Some new and lethal poem has sighed itself into your heart.
SOBE: [softly] There are no poisons remaining. We have signalled death with many diverting gestures. We have fitted too many clownish shrouds.
MALDOR: You are wistfully nervous. Some dream has burned your heart into an ashen bag.
SOBE: I will tell you, Maldor, what I have done.
MALDOR: Surely, you have found no last contortion for life.
SOBE: I have found the ultimate contortion.
MALDOR: Some nibbling horror. . . .
SOBE: No, Beauty.
MALDOR: [after a pause] Beware, master, beauty is life's revenge upon death.
SOBE: You know very little. Beauty is the devourer of death.
MALDOR: [speaks slowly] What poison is this?
SOBE: [speaks gently] A drop taken into the blood, no more. The skin becomes a milk-tinted pond in which wine-ghosts timidly bathe. The eyes, like purple breasted birds, beat against the day. The mouth blooms into splendours. Ah, Maldor, the drop releases beauty from her thousand prisons. The victim stands washed in a flood of light before which imagination dies.
MALDOR: [speaks maliciously] What unique philanthropy is this? Has Sobe the Poisoner dreamed of immortality?
SOBE: [gently] Sobe the Poisoner has made a drop of poison which will create beauty and death. In the soul of its victim these two monsters meet and strive against each other. Immortal beauty and death remain clutched in a stifling caress. The poison, as it works upon its victim, renders her more radiant and beautiful each moment, and each moment it paralyses her heart.
MALDOR: And then what happens?
SOBE: Bereft of life, but what a beauty which must resist death, the tortured one remains my own. Thus with my poison I become death's master. Thus that which should die, does not die. Thus death advancing creates a flame which it cannot stifle.
MALDOR: Beware.
SOBE: [speaks with quickened emphasis] Death is my slave. I summon him. I open a jewelled gate which he cannot pass.
MALDOR: [speaks softly] I do not like this poison.
SOBE: [smiles] You are an amateur of death, Maldor.
MALDOR: [softly] I do not like this poison.
SOBE: I will tell you another virtue of this poison, which perhaps will entice your fears.
MALDOR: What is this virtue?
SOBE: Other poisons I have made provided us only with that little frenzied prelude to death. Our victims have amused us somewhat, with unconscious heavings--little, docile marionettes in the torments of poisons. But now, Maldor, our subject, inspired by the ever-increasing loveliness of her body, by the ever-growing flame of her beauty, resists in a torment beyond those instinctive spasms and dimly-felt agonies. Her overwhelming desire to prolong her beauty makes the struggle against death wondrously hideous.
MALDOR: But since you say she cannot die, where will those struggles lead her?
SOBE: I do not know. I know only that a woman whose beauty feeds upon the shadows of death, must amuse us with a miracle.
MALDOR: [softly] The virtue of this poison does not appeal to me. The miracle you promise is cluttered with subtle doubts. Death, betrayed, may blindly wander. Let us rather return our pathetically certain poisons and revel in the final froth-sprinkled caperings of life. Ah, the powdered hair of the white caterpillar, steeped in moon-light, will cause the eyes to swell out of their sockets, and the tongue to burst.
SOBE: [gently] Where is Fana?
SOBE: Summon Fana to me.
MALDOR: Master, do not summon Fana.
SOBE: I shall make Fana beautiful.
[Fana draws aside the portieres at the left. Fana is tall, with a majestic ugliness. She is dressed in a dark brown robe. Her face is swathed in a pale brown veil, knotted at the nape of the neck, and falling almost to her feet. She stands motionless. The two men turn and stare at her.]
SOBE: [softly] I shall bring the poison.
[He rises and departs through the right entrance. Maldor rises and continues to look steadily at Fana.]
FANA: [gently] I heard the word beauty.
MALDOR: What else did you hear?
FANA: I heard only the word beauty.
MALDOR: The master is evil tonight.
FANA: More evil than always?
MALDOR: Even more.
FANA: What does he do?
MALDOR: He frightens me with a mockery of death.
FANA: What did he say of beauty?
MALDOR: Fana, go before he returns.
[Maldor quickly walks to the right entrance, draws aside the portieres, and peers cautiously out. He returns quickly to Fana.]
MALDOR: He has a poison to make you beautiful.
FANA: Is he weary of my ugliness?
MALDOR: He has no thought for you. He seeks to enslave his master, Death.
FANA: But I did hear him speak of beauty.
MALDOR: [desperately] He means to make you the flowered tomb of beauty. I can tell you no more. Go!
FANA: Why do you tell me this? I have seen you smile upon things less subtle than tombs.
MALDOR: I love you.
FANA: It is easy to love that which is veiled. But perhaps you love me because my face is so gentle a poison.
MALDOR: I know not ugliness. It is a mood which has forsaken me. I plead with you to go.
[Maldor hears Sobe's footfalls and seats himself impassively upon his cushion.]
FANA: [softly] I shall remain.
[Sobe enters. He bows to Fana.]
SOBE: Ah, Fana, I shall make your stay pleasant.
FANA: Yes, Master.
[She seats herself behind the candle between Sobe and Maldor.]
SOBE: [gently] You are very ugly, Fana. You wear a veil because you are ugly.
FANA: I heard you speak of beauty.
SOBE: Your body is like a broken cloud. Your face is like a pottery that crumbles in the light. You are not beautiful.
FANA: [softly] Why do you tell me this so carefully?
SOBE: To make you dream.
FANA: Dreams are mirrors in which I do not care to look.
SOBE: I have a poison that will open your heart to dreams.
FANA: The dream which poison brings is too long.
SOBE: This poison brings two dreams. One of beauty and one of death. Would you listen to them?
FANA: Listening to dreams one avoids the dreariness of sleep.
SOBE: [gently] You are very ugly, Fana. I have a poison which will make you beautiful.
FANA: To lie beautiful in death is a lyric privilege, but so faint an echo.
SOBE: You reason too simply. I cannot promise you life. Perhaps your pleasure will be only that of one who greets a phantom lover. A moment of loveliness and the thought of eternal beauty embalmed in a dark dream, may be all that shall be given to you before death.
FANA: And what else is possible?
SOBE: It is possible that you will become so beautiful that you cannot die. It is possible that Death, feeding your beauty, will exhaust itself in a last gentle caress. Then you will still live, and Death, a eunuch, will drag himself after you.
FANA: But why do you speak so eagerly? Surely your only interest does not lie in my exchanging one veil for another.
MALDOR: [breaking his silence softly] No, Fana, my master dreams of edged subtleties.
SOBE: Make them simple with your telling, Maldor.
MALDOR: My master is weary of ordinary effects. He has watched too many frenzied struggles. No longer do they intrigue him. He yearns for something elaborate. He has dreamed of more fragile tortures. The poison he will give you brings no pain, but the beauty it creates within you will sharpen to madness your desire to live, and my master will sit and look into your eyes.
SOBE: Have you finished, Maldor?
SOBE: [gently] I desire another assistant, Fana. As you see, one who will serve me more faithfully, and whose loves are not so obvious. I will tell you why I am so eager. I wish simply to master death.
FANA: Have you the poison?
SOBE: Here.
[He takes from his robe a small flagon and hands it to her.]
SOBE: I have hidden the drop in wine.
[Fana rises and lifts her veil from her mouth. She drinks, smiling at Maldor, who sits and stares impassively ahead of him. Sobe rises and moves to the back of the room, watching her.]
FANA: I have drunk.
SOBE: [softly] Unveil yourself.
[Fana unveils herself.]
[He draws aside a panel portiere in the rear draperies, and a long narrow mirror is revealed.]
SOBE: Look.
SOBE: [gazing at her intently] You are beautiful.
FANA: [whispering] I grow more beautiful.
SOBE: [he speaks as if growing dazed] Your eyes. . . .
FANA: My eyes are like madly swinging torches.
SOBE: Your mouth. . . .
FANA: My mouth is like the little red door to a palace.
SOBE: Your hair. . . .
FANA: [eyeing the mirror still] My hair is like a misty pageant.
SOBE: Your body. . . .
FANA: The wine of my body drenches my clothes.
SOBE: You grow more beautiful.
FANA: [becomes exultant] My beauty gathers over me like rose-flooded armor.
SOBE: [whispering] Death slashes at your armor.
FANA: [exultant] I cannot die.
SOBE: The poison glides softly through your blood.
FANA: [she speaks softly] I cannot die.
[She turns and looks at him.]
SOBE: [shrinking back] Do not look upon me.
[Fana flings out both her arms and moves toward him. She speaks in a strange voice.]
FANA: What pleasures do you see in my eyes?
SOBE: [gasping] The poison . . . take it away. . . .
FANA: [she sings] My beauty, my beauty is a wildly chanting torrent.
SOBE: [speaks and holds his throat and gasps] Death staggers from you . . . and death blindly wanders. . . .
FANA: [comes closer to him and speaks mockingly] Ah, poisoner.
SOBE: [in anguish] My heart breaks. [He staggers; speaks faintly.] I am Death's master!
[He staggers another step forward and pitches headlong across the scarlet cushion on which he sat. Maldor leans forward and touches his throat as Fana softly laughs.]
MALDOR: He is dead.
[Maldor straightens himself and stares impassively ahead of him. Fana remains an instant staring at herself in the mirror, then turns, and with an enigmatic smile, passes out of the room.]


Known as the "King of the Greenwhich Village Bohemians," poet and novelist Maxwell Bodenheim became famous for his drunken barroom antics, and his several books, including the poetry collection Minna and Myself and the novels Replenishing Jessica, Ninth Avenue, and Naked on Roller Skates. He became closse friends with Ben Hecht in 1912, and two collaborated occasionally. Bodenheim and his wife Ruth were murdered by a homeless man whom they had allowed into their apartment for the night. After his death, an autobiography, My Life and Loves in Greenwich Village, was published, ghost written by Samuel Roth.

Dubbed "the Shakespeare of Hollywood," Ben Hecht wrote numerous plays and film scripts, including Scarface, The Front Page (also a play by him and Charles MacArthur), Twentieth Century, Nothing Sacred, Some Like It Hot, His Girl Friday, Notorious, Monkey Business, etc.
and other books, including an autobiography.

No comments:

Post a Comment