Sunday, November 18, 2007

Blasphemy Act Three

Act 3

A podium, on the left, front; a platform on the right, middle. While the narrator speaks, men slowly began building a primitive scaffold.
The narrator enters, a bandage on his nose.
Narrator: Yes, it’s me again. I had a little altercation with the author backstage (pointing to bandage on his nose). This is where he bit me -- he insists that I’m ruining his play! (laughs)
You may find this hard to believe, but this so-called playwright wanted to insert a happy ending to this tragedy. A Hollywood ending! He was even toying with the idea of introducing a totally fictional girlfriend of Aikenhead’s, a slender but bosomy blonde, who rescues our hero at the last moment, a la Beethoven’s Lenore, and the two of them then hop a freighter for America to start life anew. I wouldn’t hear of it. Even though I know that so many local theaters have all these actresses and no roles for them to play. (He actually told me that Nicole Kidman could play the girlfriend in the movie version!)
He argued and argued. “Giuseppe Verdi himself wrote an opera about Joan of Arc—and at the end of the opera she’s rescued! And gets married! And Prokofiev planned to write a ballet about Romeo and Juliet where the lovers don’t die! I guess they got married, had kids, and then, of course, got a messy divorce. Shouldn’t have married so young in the first place.
Forget it, I told him. No happy ending. And there’s no earthly reason for the girlfriend to walk around the stage just wearing lingerie.
What the hell? [He is startled to notice the scaffold being constructed and quickly becomes serious]…
Oh, yes, Thomas Aikenhead was hanged on Jan, 8, 1697, on a cold afternoon. A long, long time ago. At 18. If he had lived to the ripe old age of 72, he would have died…[takes out calculator, punches in numbers] in 1750. Before our war of independence! Two hundred and 50 odd years ago! In 1750, George Washington was only 18 years old! Eighteen when Aikenhead died at 18.
And what if Aikenhead had died by being trampled by a wild horse at age 18…or carried off by the plague…or had run away to sea and had never been heard of again? Nobody would even know his name today. A great many very, very promising young people have had their lives snuffed out in their primes.
Did you know that Caesar and Cleopatra had a child? A boy? Octavian had him put to death. At age 17. Yes, people are cruel. They were cruel then and they are now. How Caesar and Cleopatra’s child might have altered history! I mean, if you wept at every tragedy in the sordid history of the human species, you would be shedding tears day in and day out.
But...okay, Thomas Aikenhead was a dazzlingly bright and talented lad. Gifted of tongue and mind. He deserved to have lived longer, and with his gifts he probably would have amounted to something. A respected theologian. A playwright. [pause] A talented playwright. Another Erasmus, perhaps. He might have lived to fall madly in love, to father children, and to put grandchildren on his knee, to teach other sassy whippersnappers like himself a little humility; he might have lived to visit Venice and London and Vienna, to taste new delicious and exotic foods, to marvel at paintings by Rembandt and Raphael and statues by Michelangelo, to read Cervantes and Shakespeare and to try to understand Isaac Newton’s Principia, to listen to Bach and Handel — in short, to have lived a full life -- the full life that a remarkably intelligent and quick-witted young man might have enjoyed at the beginning of the Age of Reason. But it was not to be.
Poor Joan of Arc was burned at the stake around 200 years before Aikenhead was murdered. She’s one of the most famous women in history. Francois Villon mentioned her in a poem; Mark Twain and Bernard Shaw wrote about her. Carl Dreyer directed a memorable film about her. And what is there to commemorate the short, tragic life of Thomas Aikenhead? He deserved Shakespeare, or at least Eugene O’Neill. And [shaking head] look what he got.
And imagine the descendants he might have had! All with his healthy skepticism and his probing intelligence! Hundreds and hundreds of desirable descendants. Instead of the hundreds and hundreds of descendants of those despicable bastards, Sir James Stewart and Mungo Craig…
Sorry. I got carried away…
It’s 1697. The beginning of the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment. The 17th century gave us Newton and Galileo, William Harvey, Kepler, Descartes and so on. But obviously not everyone was enlightened—either then or now.
Let me ask you: When were the Salem witch trials held in the United States? Does anyone know? Twenty-nine people were convicted of being witches and wizards, and 19 were hanged--14 women and five men. [Pause] The trials were in 1692 and 1693. A few years earlier.
People will believe anything. Even Isaac Newton believed in theological nonsense. I’ll bet that even you sophisticated people in this audience believe wacky stuff. I would probably offend you by being more specific, but I cannot avoid mentioning Noah’s ark. [giggles] Two of every kind. Two aardvarks, two fleas, two paramecia…but no unicorns…. And no brontosauruses. Too big. Now you know why the dinosaurs really died out….
I digress. In the late 17th century, in England, a new tolerance of freedom of thought—freedom of religion—was developing. This new tolerance outraged and frightened the leaders of the powerful and conservative Scottish kirk—hence the new law making blasphemy punishable by death. Hence the decision to make an example of someone—of poor, pitiable Thomas Aikenhead.
Scotland went on to become a leader in intellectual thought. Think of David Hume and Adam Smith. Perhaps, as some historians have suggested, Scotland in the years that followed was haunted by the horrible murder of young Thomas Aikenhead. Perhaps that led to Scotland’s greater tolerance of divergent views.
So perhaps he accomplished something in his short sad life. And maybe he will have accomplished something if…tonight…you learned more about him and his unwarranted death…and along with me, you remember him, with pity and sorrow, for the remainder of your life…and …like me you will beg his forgiveness. On behalf of humankind.
[walks off stage]
[a pause of a few mintes]
Thomas Aikenhead is led on stage, dressed in black, his arms tied behind him, looking pale and fearful. He shivers in the cold of January. He climbs a ladder to the scafford.
As he speaks, a knot of clerics (including Sir James Stewart) and ordinary people jeer at him: “Atheist!” “Liar!” “Devil-worshipper!” “You deserve to die!” “You’ll go to hell!”
He speaks in a wavering voice full of fear:
Most of the following text is historical, and it is not always clear.
“I can change the world, if they can stain me, or lay any such thing on my charge, so that it was out of a pure love of truth, and of my own happiness, that I acted. It is a principle innate and co-natural to every man to have an insatiable inclination to truth, and to follow reason wherever it may lead. This I have done, and it has cost me my life. [sobs]
“The chief witness against me was my friend, my friend, Mungo Craig, whom I have to reckon with God and his own conscience, if he was not as deeply concerned in those hellish notions (for which I am sentenced) as ever I was.
“But… but I forgive Mungo Craig. I do forgive him. I do forgive all of those who figured in my trial, who have condemned me to death. And I wish that the Lord forgive Mungo Craig and forgive those who worked to bring about my death.
[Pauses to recover]
“It is my earnest desire that my blood may give a stop to that raging spirit of atheism which hath taken such footing in Britain….
“And now, oh Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, in thy hands I recommend my spirit.”
[Narrator returns to stage to watch. Curtain descends quickly, with Aikenhead still standing on the platform and people shouting abuse at him. Led by Stewart.]

Much of the historical information in this play comes from “How the Scots Invented the Modern World” by Arthur Herman (2001).

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home