“The Next Thing”
I had the idea for “The Next Thing” one night at Joe Chaikin’s house on 12th Street when Joe played me the final scene of Strauss’s opera “Salome,” based on the play by Oscar Wilde, with Ljuba Wellitch in the title role. Strauss raises the emotion to a pitch of ecstatic intensity and then holds it there, suspending time. That was the effect I was after, like being high on marijuana; the characters and story were only a pretext. That is the way it generally works for me: the manifest content of a work emerges out of the form, rather than the other way around. What was I thinking, to write about matricide and a young woman pretending to be crippled and a distraught black father-to-be?
The play was presented as part of a season of plays produced by the Open Theatre at La Mama in spring 1966 and directed by Jacques Levy, a brilliant former psychiatrist who had been working with Joe at the Open Theatre, which had a number of playwright members including me. The faceted structure of the play was the result of Jacques’s intervention. I arrived at rehearsal one day to find that he had cut up my relatively unified script and pieced it back together in 11 discontinuous nonchronological scenes. This contravened my original intention, but I was afraid Jacques would quit if I did not let him have his way, and it was such an interesting idea that I wanted to see how it would work. It gave the play another whole dimension of formal innovation, and I liked it so much that I ultimately published it that way, in my anthology “The Best of Off-Off-Broadway” (E.P. Dutton, 1969). It might have been unbearably heavy the way I originally wrote it. I will never know.
“The Next Thing” was presented by the Open Theatre at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, 122 Second Avenue, New York, on March 23, 1966. It was directed by Jacques Levy with the following cast:
Demented harpsichord music, composed and performed by Robert Cosmos Savage, broke up the scenes. Gwen Fabricant designed the set, big murky paintings leaning inward like a claustrophobic Upper West Side apartment. Fred Katz built the transforming dinner table.
From “The Next Thing” (Scene 6)
At dinner. Harold, a powerful middle-aged Negro man, enters and rushes through the apartment. Arthur comes in behind him carrying the rifle.
HAROLD: Margaret! Margaret! I know you’re here! I know they’re hiding you here somewhere! Make a sound, any kind of sound, so I’ll know where you are, so I can find you! I came as fast as I could, as fast as they’d let me! Where are you? Margaret! I can’t be too late! No, no! What kind of people are they to do a thing like this? Margaret! Margaret? (Pause, then raving.) It is I who am pregnant! I! I! Savaged by who called me savage. It is I! And after that: the horror! The dread! Oh devilish moans and weeping! Terror! You ask how I come to be thus distraught. You cannot imagine. Just think what you’ve done! Think! Your consciences creak and groan from strain like elevators overloaded with passengers of lead. Think then what you might have done! The dreadful possibilties! You must sweat and sigh. Is there no relief, relief nowhere? I am soiled with your vulgarity! Look at each other that way if you must. Go on exchanging those glances limp with ignorance. What manner of man is this? I read you well. How dare he burst into our evacuated life with his vile accusations, abominations? Revelations! I know what you fear, believe me when I say it. Little people panting and gaping before my immensity. Well, I am no longer interested to shelter them in my hair. My curly, crinkly, black hair! Or you could bake me, skewer me, base and salt me, time me and gobble me down. The heat is not stranger than cold, not more painful than Africa—the sound is always with me devouring and lusting. Oh my God! Good grief! Where is my head! It’s nice music. Before you go… no, no… You are all striped, do you know? Striped, striped. Blue and white, horizontal stripes. My head spins and reels, my body pulsates in mighty heaves, my eyes are foreign and wet with mistrust. Abandon, rage, expose, forgive, forget. The feeling flattened me in its wake and left me panting, spent like a nickel. What a fool am I! Cigarettes on the floor, don’t get too upset. Avoid the music—don’t listen. Don’t! I’ll get through this one day at least. The stripes! Jesus! The picture clears after all this. Sky spreads, blue and deep as eyes. Black as eyes at night. But donsk my forgiveness, it’s not to be given! You give birth so seldom. The thought occurs to me to offer you money. It is yours, not only mine. Give her back! Tell me what you’ve done! I implore, I humble beg in my pale disbelief, snow-blind and tender-footed I beseech. A continent propels me and I am barely mighty to resist. You broke it purposelessly. Memories crush and smother me. Her face grows larger by the minute, it fills the room, bursts and fills the building, bursts, bursts. There is nothing but her face, nothing anywhere. No America, no Africa, no Asia. The seas are dry, the clouds are still. The music is muffled in these wads of flesh. God is crushed by her face. And the child is mine to bear, it is I who shall labor. May you touch no grief as dark as mine.
MOTHER: You must be Harold. I’ve heard so much about you.
HAROLD: Where is she?
MOTHER: Margaret left around five as usual. Is anything wrong?
HAROLD: Where is she?
MOTHER: Margaret told me the wonderful news. I’m so happy for you both.
HAROLD: You’ve shot her with the gun. I know! I’ll see you pilloried, I’ll see you damned! (Arthur laughs. Harold turns on Sue.) Who are you? You don’t know these people. These people would do anything. Normal people don’t answer the door carrying guns. I should have shot first.
ARTHUR: Do you have a gun?
HAROLD: No, I don’t, not yet. (Wild again.) Margaret! Margaret! Come back to me, please, baby, come back to me! This is Harold calling to you! Come on back to me!
MOTHER: I’m afraid there’s some mistake, Mr…. Harold. Margaret left here a little before five as usual.
ARTHUR: You’re just in time for dessert.
MOTHER: Arthur! (Sweetly, to Harold.) She said something about shopping. She was going home to cook dinner for you. Chops, I think. I don’t know what could have happened to her. Perhaps there’s been an accident of some kind. Have you called the hospitals? Have you checked with the police?
HAROLD: No, no police!
MOTHER: If only you would tell me what’s wrong, possibly I could help. I understand your being worried, but I can’t think why you’re blaming us. Now, there, there. Don’t be upset. I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation. Just be patient, and everything will work out.
Harold looks at her blankly, then with a terrible groan rushes from the room.
Copyright © 1965. All rights reserved.