CLAY MCLEOD CHAPMAN | volume of smoke
The play volume of smoke was written by
Clay McLeod Chapman, with sections adapted from John F. Watson's "Calamity
at Richmond, Being a Narrative of the Affecting Circumstances Attending
the Awful Conflagration of the Theatre in the City of Richmond, on the
Night of Thursday, the 26th of December, 1811."
It was first presented in a workshop production
by St. Anthony’s Dance and Horse Trade Productions at the Kraine
Theater in New York City, New York in October 2004. It was directed and
designed by Isaac Butler, with light design by Sabrina Braswell and original
music by Erik Sanko. The ensemble, playing various roles, was as follows:
The play was subsequently presented in a full revised
production at The Firehouse Theater (Carol Piersol, Artistic Director)
in Richmond, Virginia, in March and April of 2005. It was directed by
Isaac Butler and Clay McLeod Chapman, with sound design by Isaac Butler,
light design by Sabrina Braswell and original music by Erik Sanko. The
ensemble, playing various roles, was as follows:
Stephen W. Ryan
One of the most generous things about Clay Chapman
as a writer is that he writes no stage directions—as far as he
is concerned, the writer's job ends with the characters' voices. I have
attempted to add some stage directions so that you, the reader, can get
some sense of what we did in our particular version of the play. So feel
free to disregard all of it if you should be fortunate enough to produce
the play yourself. The text is extremely flexible, from how the roles
are divided to how they are performed to how the show is staged.
In the Richmond production, the first Physician's
monologue was divided amongst the female cast members as a kind of choral
piece. The full cast recited the italicized lines, with the women alternating
at every new paragraph. The Bleeding Nun was divided amongst the full
audience members (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5)
parents (#1, #2, #3)
children (#1, #2, #3)
the bleeding nun
Between twenty and thirty minutes before the start
of the show, around about the same time the house is ready to open—one
actor should situate himself directly outside the main entrance to the
theatre, clearly agitated, trying with very little success of entering
inside. He should move himself around those members of the audience making
their way through the front door. The majority of this should be done
in silence, whatever discourse relegating itself to simple bits of dialogue—such
as, "I've got to go back inside" or "Candice? Candice?" repeated
over and over again.
The desired effect is to create the atmosphere
of the building being enveloped in fire. The man, having escaped—is
now increasingly aware of the fact that a loved one, his wife or daughter,
is still trapped inside.
volume of smoke
The set of the stage
is history's attic or backstage place. Anachronous junk from all
periods of history is pushed to the walls, as if the stage were
just cleaned seconds before the audience entered. As the audience
files in, the sole illumination on stage is provided by a ghost
light sitting center stage. Embedded in the junk are two ladders,
six chairs and multiple costume pieces/props. As the actors change
characters throughout the show, they return to various places in
the pile of junk to get their costume pieces and create each character.
The idea is that the ensemble is a theater company of ghosts condemned
to recreate this tragedy in purgatory night after night for all
of eternity. Throughout the play they will form the visual component
of each other's monologues. This is—once again—not
the sole interpretation of this text, it is merely a concept that
worked for us. As the house music fades, and with the house lights
dimming, the reverend's wife appears from the back of the house,
holding a candle, making her way through the audience during her
The frequenter of the theater obeys the dictates
of a common depravity. Morals on the stage are always distorted. Vice
is allied with virtue, as to appear like a younger sister—never
permitting suspicion that the monster is actually seated within the heart.
Richmond, afflicted Richmond.
You have resolved that all your theatres shall go
dark, their stages bare of any action for the following four months—like
the bones of a carcass pecked clean of its meat. Performance of no shape
shall be permitted to approach her.
May this city have the grace to protract that period even farther and farther.
(She blows out the candle. Darkness. When the lights rise, music
plays and two actors set the six chairs and two ladders up for use
in the rest of the show.)
Thirty five scenes. Purple sunsets. Skies painted
with the whitest clouds. Nightscapes, the canvas scattered with stars.
Snow capped mountains. Rolling oceans.
On and on and on. There was a tapestry for every
time of day, every season. Every corner of the world.
Thirty five scenes, all of them suspended over the
actors' heads. Hanging by hemp and not much else.
After an evening's performance, when the house is
finally empty—walking backstage, I'd catch myself listening to
the fibers flexing themselves under the backdrop's weight. The hemp stretches
itself, each rope making this twisting sound. All high-pitched and leathery.
Sounds like sails billowing in the wind. All those backdrops, just catching
a stray draft. Shifting with the current.
This theatre's nothing but a schooner, built in
with thirty five different sails—each one an expanse of canvas
set with a different piece of scenery.
It was my job to hoist up the sails, manning the
masts backstage. Holding the ropes until the order was called to raise
the sky. Raise the sunset. Raise the mountains.
My hands have the scars to prove it. Palms have
nearly been burned through. Takes me an hour after every show to pick
the splinters out from each wrist—wrapping the ends of these ropes
around my arms, just to keep my grip.
The curtains open and the command goes out. The
actors step on stage, looking out into that audience. Nothing but an
ocean of rolling heads.
We set sail every evening.
There are parts men are destined to play. Hamlet,
for one. I remember my first encounter with the role, portraying the
Prince of Denmark for over seventy consecutive performances. Our production
toured throughout the southeastern region of the United States. I inhabited
the role within a completely different theatre every evening. Knoxville,
Tennessee. Atlanta, Georgia. Night after night, I took to the stage—only
for the very spirit of Shakespeare to enter my body, possessing this
vessel for the duration of the performance. I channeled his immortal
words as if I were speaking them for the very first time.
Critics agreed. The reviews said just as much, expressing
their admiration at my ability to make the lines crackle. If there
had been a pail of water at my side, one columnist reported. I
would have tossed it upon Mr. Robinson, hoping to extinguish his infernal
interpretation of the Bard.
It's the legacy of the line that I most admire.
What's written will be read. What's published will be performed for an
eternity. These lines will be repeated by hundreds upon hundreds of actors.
But how that one performer chooses to speak them will be his mark on
the role. The next ends up adding something completely different. And
so on and so forth.
But I'll admit this much: Never in my life had I
ever spoke such words on stage with such conviction, such sincerity,
as—The house is on fire.
And the curtain that closed on me that evening was
backstage with the stagehand, the property man, and the carpenter
STAGEHAND: It was from the first act. There's a chandelier
hanging from the ceiling. Illuminates the whole stage. Looks intimate
enough. It's the last scene before the intermission, so when the curtain
falls—I'm supposed to wait for the order to hoist the chandelier
up, lifting the lamp back with the rest of the tapestries.
Raise up the chandelier. Who said it, I
can't say. My back was turned, but I heard his voice clear enough. As
clear as I can hear my own, talking to you right now. Raise up the
chandelier. Raise up the chandelier.
I'm not deaf. Certainly not dumb. Orders are orders
and I do as I'm told.
If I were one to point fingers, I'd aim mine at
the property man. Right between the eyes.
(The PROPERTY MAN, who has been sitting
in the audience, pops up and makes his way to the stage.)
PROPERTY MAN: It was during the intermission when
I noticed the glow. This stray flicker of light that I couldn't account
for. Looking up, I immediately saw it amongst all the other backdrops—that
flush of orange and yellow, casting a shadow over the ropes.
The stage hand had raised the scene before extinguishing
Lower that lamp and blow it out.
Three times, I said it. Repeatedly.
Lower that lamp and blow it out.
Lower that lamp and blow it out.
STAGEHAND: There were about three minutes before
the second act was to start, so I told the carpenter to extinguish it.
CARPENTER: That lamp was up high. Made it difficult
for me to see which rope it was tied to. Had to unfasten a few before
finding the right one. The candle had cast these shadows across the cables.
Looked like one big knot up there. All the cords moving, tangling up
into each other.
So I gave a good yank on the pulley.
STAGEHAND: Two cords worked over two pulleys. The
roof had a collar-beam attached to the ceiling, the lamp hanging down
from above by about fourteen feet.
CARPENTER: The rope got all twisted into itself,
so I gave a good yank on the pulley.
STAGEHAND: Whoever handled the chandelier had done
a poor job. I found myself backstage, attempting to move it. Only for
the rope to catch on a separate set-piece, spinning a bit before settling
back down again.
CARPENTER: I gave a good yank on the pulley. Only
the lamp shook. Started rocking a bit. Just a few inches. Back and forth,
like that. Had to raise it up again, just to bring it down. Only it jerked
this time. It jostled. The lamp swerved from its upright position, dragging
the candle clear across the lower corner of the neighboring backdrop.
STAGEHAND: All that varnish. All that lacquer.
PROPERTY MAN: The scene went up in a second.
CARPENTER: In a heartbeat. Whoosh . . .
STAGEHAND: Barely even a breath.
PROPERTY MAN: It was the morning sky. The tapestry
that caught on fire. It was a painting of the morning sky, just at sunrise—daybreak
only a moment away.
STAGEHAND: The flame rose. Grew and grew. Tapering
off to a sharp point, it reached the roof.
CARPENTER: Couldn't have been more than six or seven
STAGEHAND: Six feet. Maybe seven.
PROPERTY MAN: More like seven.
STAGEHAND and PROPERTY MAN: Seven.
CARPENTER: All those scenes, lacquered up in varnish.
Might as well have painted them in kerosene.
PROPERTY MAN: Skies. Sunsets. Daybreaks. Rolling
oceans. Street fronts. Mountains. Houses. Living rooms. Churches. Cliff
tops. Roof tops. Starry skies. Clouds. Snow. Lightning bolts. Tidal wives.
Temples. Bedrooms. Cityscapes.
STAGEHAND: Thirty five tapestries.
CARPENTER: All on fire now.
STAGEHAND: All hanging over the stage. Hiding behind
the proscenium. The second act had started, the audience wrapped up in
the show —while welling up just over their heads, the fire mounted.
Grew along the roof, the flames extending their way towards the house.
CARPENTER: That actor on stage took one look up,
lifting his eyes towards the ceiling—only to turn back to the audience,
and say . . .
ACTOR: The house is on fire.
STAGEHAND: Only nobody in the audience believed
CARPENTER: Now how bad of an actor can you be that
you can yell fire in a crowded theatre and still nobody believes you?
STAGEHAND: He received a standing ovation that night.
CARPENTER: That's for sure.
STAGEHAND: Everybody leapt to their feet the second
they saw the fire falling from the ceiling, scattering across the stage.
CARPENTER: He brought the house down!
audience member #1
Damn seats. Uncomfortable as hell. After an hour
of sitting in them, your back's practically bent in half. You leave the
theatre feeling like a hunchback.
The armrests are wood, while the rest is cast iron.
Make one move during the show, just to adjust yourself—and your
seat sends out the most ear-piercing screech. Sounds like a cat on fire,
caterwauling to death.
I can't even concentrate on the show. I'll spend
the entire night searching for that one comfortable position, shifting
back and forth. I'll slip forward for five minutes, until I've lost the
feeling in my legs. I'll pull myself up until my tailbone's rubbing against
the back, my rump all numb.
Lean to the left. Lean to the right.
My seat squeaking and shrieking. Everyone's heads
turning towards me.
Our strength is in our numbers, people! The audience
can't complain if we shuffle all at once. Not a soul can be singled out
when we budge as brothers, united!
Altogether now: Shift!
On my mark: Move!
On the count of three: One, two, three!
Find that comfort wherever you can! Whatever it
takes to make the play more bearable!
(When AUDIENCE MEMBER #2 begins, the
rest of the cast turn into the background for his speech—the
wife, the child, the other spectators, sitting in the rows of seats
that they have just set up.)
audience member #2
These were the best seats in the house. Front and
center, just a few rows back from the orchestra. There was a perfect
view of the entire stage. Less heads to look over. The balcony was well
behind us. It was as if this show were being performed solely for my
family and I. The rest of the audience may as well have melted away from
my mind's eye, left with this flawless landscape of the stage.
If you could understand the amount of trouble I
went to, simply to obtain these seats—you'd appreciate my patience.
My wife had been begging me to take her to the theatre for months. I
rarely heard the end of it. Our anniversary was well on its way—so
I figured, this would be a most appropriate present to commemorate our
marriage with. I kept it a secret for weeks. It was perfect. Couldn't
have planned a better present.
I'd even gone to the lengths of blindfolding my
wife, escorting her to her chair with the aid of my daughter's arm. The
two of us sat at her side, each taking an ear—whispering hints
of where we could possibly be. Every sound made her bristle with this
inquisitiveness. The rustling of the playbills, the murmur of the audience.
She hadn't a clue.
Is it dinner? No . . .
Is it a concert? No . . .
Where are we then? Patience, my dear. Patience .
Removing the blindfold was just about the most wonderful
part of the evening for me. Watching her eyes come into focus, taking
in the stage. And then flaring up. My God, her eyes lit like oil lamps
falling to the floor, the kerosene bursting over the ground. I'd never
seen anything so beautiful. She could barely contain herself. And the
kiss she gave me, in front of everyone else in that audience, before
the entire house, the balcony, the boxes—I tell you now, it may
as well have been the both of us on that stage, performing our own play.
Everyone from the house began to cheer. Before the
play had even started, we received our very own standing ovation.
(The actors playing the other audience members
see the fire, turn and run in slow motion out of the space, leaving
the AUDIENCE MEMBER his wife and their child alone on stage.)
When the cry was made that there was a fire —sure
enough, not two breaths later, I could see the flames enveloping the
proscenium, spreading along the edge of the stage. My wife reached for
my arm, squeezing. But I insisted that we stay in place.
Patience, I said. It would be more prudent
to sit still. To wait while the rest of the audience hurried for the
exits. The couple next to us had to extend their legs over our own, scurrying
for the aisles—while I insisted to my wife and daughter that we
keep in place.
Patience, I said. Knowing quite well that
we'd be crammed in with everyone else from the house, pushed and prodded
along like cattle. Knowing quite well that there'd be very little chance
of the three of us staying together, battling the corralling crowd. Knowing
quite well that when we entered the stream of people forcing their way
through the aisles, there'd be no hope of me keeping my grip on my wife's
hand and her holding onto our daughter.
Patience, I said. Sit here and wait.
We did, watching the fire spread, suddenly surrounding
us—as if this were the show I paid for. As if this was what we'd
come to watch.
If I had taken the time to realize why, why I
insisted so heartily that we stay in our seats, while everyone else raced
for the exit, yelling and screaming as they went. To recognize my intentions
for what they were, what part of me had been so stubborn—I might
have been able to admit to myself that it was for the view. The intimacy
of it all. Front and center. Just a few rows back from the orchestra.
Don't you see? These were the best seats in the
The curtain had been dropped in hopes of warding
off the flames. Through the thick partition, I could see a very large
bright light mounting in its intensity. Glowing.
And then the flames ate through.
(Blackout. Chaotic and haunting music. During
the next section, the chairs are rearranged into two parallel lines
at either side of the stage, the PARENTS run through the
audience whilst the CHILDREN get ready for their monologues.)
what we said to our children
PARENT #1: Whatever you do, honey—don't let
go of my hand.
PARENT #2: Keep your grip. Hold on tight.
PARENT #3: I want you to follow the fresh air, wherever
you can find it.
PARENT #1: Let your lungs lead the way.
PARENT #2: Have you seen your sister?
PARENT #3: Have you seen your little brother?
PARENT #1: Your father?
PARENT #2: Have you seen where your mother went?
PARENT #3: Stay right here.
PARENT #1: Don't move.
PARENT #2: Wait until I come back for you.
PARENT #3: I'll be returning right away.
PARENT #1: Keep your head low, honey.
PARENT #2: Don't look down. Don't look at the floor.
PARENT #3: Keep up with me. Stop falling behind.
PARENT #1: Pick up your feet, sweetie. We don't
have much time.
PARENT #2: If your eyes keep stinging, close them.
PARENT #3: The smoke's just getting in your eyes.
PARENT #1: I'd give you a piggy-back if the smoke
PARENT #2: You'd have your head in the clouds all
the way out.
PARENT #3: Can you hear me, honey?
PARENT #1: Can you see?
PARENT #2: Can you breathe?
PARENT #3: Whatever you do, honey—don't let
go of my hand.
(The PARENTS reenter the space in
a slow funereal procession while the CHILDREN speak.)
children triptych — pt. I
My mother had stood behind me at the mirror for
hours, preparing my hair for our evening out. She had taken a cup full
of sugar that afternoon, boiling it in barley—so that she could
then dip my curls into the substance, soaking my hair in it, combing
its thick consistency through and through. When the sugar solidified,
so would my hair—keeping its curls perfectly intact throughout
the entire night.
That's why when the fire spread over my body, devouring
my head in flames—my curls crispened, even crackled, the slightest
scent of sweetness spreading with the cinders of my scalp.
children triptych — pt. II
I was bored. Kept kicking the seat in front of me,
until the man sitting there turned around and glared. Couldn't help but
snicker a bit.
My mother took me by the hand. Nearly yanked my
arm out of its socket—pulling me up from my seat, dragging me down
Got my whipping in the lobby. Bent me right over
her knee, spanking me in front of the ushers. Never felt more embarrassed
in all of my life.
The doors parted open, the audience charging through.
Looked like a dam had broken, the water rushing right over my mother
and I. Nobody stopped long enough to realize we were right there in front
of them. Nobody leaned over to try and pick us up from the floor.
What it must've felt like to step on some little
boy's bony frame, the snap of his ribs resonating through their shoe.
What that softness must've felt like from under their foot, realizing
they'd just trampled over me. If they even realized it at all.
children triptych — pt. III
I only let go of your hand for a moment, long enough
to fix my dress. It had gotten all ruffled, bunching up at my feet. I
kept stepping on the hem. The crowd behind me continued to trod on the
back end, throwing me backwards with every step forward.
I figured, if I could just grip the fringe with
my hand, lifting the hem up to my knee—I'd be able to run faster.
Keep up with you.
You made this dress for me, taking my measurements.
You asked me to stand still, hold my arms out at my shoulders—while
I imagined myself to be a bird, flapping its wings. You asked me to stop
shifting, keep my knees together—while I imagined myself to be
a pony, whinnying up onto its hind legs.
You finally gave up, throwing your own hands into
Well, if this dress ends up being too big for
you, you'll simply have to grow into it.
Never had the chance.
(During this section, the other actors who
have turned neutral fall to the ground dead in slow motion one by
audience member #3
The floor had gone soft. The smoke had grown so
thick inside the hallway, I couldn't see six inches in front of me—let
alone where I was stepping. I acted upon the blind faith of one-foot-in-front-of-the-other.
Over and over again, just like that. Praying I'd find the hard floor
It took all of my energy to force my way through
the crowd, just to reach the street outside. I stepped over the people
in front of me, climbing over their heads. I pushed so hard, forgetting
that these were people—trampling over their bodies without even
considering helping them get back up.
The smoke made it easy enough. There was nothing
to see. There was only their physical presence, the touch and not much
One-foot-in-front-of-the-other. As simple as that.
There was smoke in my lungs. Everyone around me
was sinking, falling to the floor—while I kept climbing higher,
reaching for anything that would advance me ahead of the rest. Everyone
was extending their hands for me to grab and pull them back up to their
feet. I discovered that the persons blockading the exits were principally
ladies, crying for relief. They entreated the crowd not to hurt them.
Beseeching so loudly, it became a chorus. It sounded like a song.
Those who escaped, myself included, did so at the
expense of others. I found freedom on the bodies of others too weak to
find it first.
You must understand. I had to find my daughter.
We had been separated in the lobby.
Once I had made my way outdoors, it struck me that
Candice was still trapped somewhere inside. I had to turn around and
force my way through the burning doors, past all the people piling up
around the exit. It was like turning the tides, like some salmon working
its way upstream.
I wasn't nearly as fortunate the second time around.
Who'd miss the musicians? If the fire had scorched
the orchestra, burning every member of the band—I'm curious: Who'd
mourn the loss of them?
Every night, it's the same thing. Somebody's always
waiting backstage, hoping for an autograph from one of the actors. But
us musicians—we can move freely amongst the audience after the
show, like ghosts walking amongst the living.
It's because we're buried down here, in this pit.
Where no one can see us. Save for those folks sitting in the balcony,
we're invisible. I've had little children spit on me from the box seats
just above my head, this drizzle of saliva getting my sheet music all
wet in the middle of the show. The pages will stick together, making
it nearly impossible for me to turn them in time to keep up with the
Thank God smoke rises. If I'd been up there, in
the house—I would've choked to death with the rest of them.
The stage became a funeral pyre.
My sheet music was burning, curling up into ash.
Sitting in the pit by myself, I just watched the fire eat through the
paper, spreading through the measures —as if the flames were reading
the music, note by note. The rest of the orchestra had run, dropping
their instruments to the floor. Leaving their music behind. The fire
took to their instruments instantly. Seized them in a second. Flames
snaked inside each woodwind, tunneling through the flue—a flash
of fire flaring out from the finger holes. When it came upon the string
section, the fire reached for the harp first—a wave of flames wrapping
around the wires, plucking each string until they snapped. One after
another, pling, pling, pling.
The brass held its own. Each horn heated up like
a frying pan on the stove. I had reached for my horn, only to burn my
hand. Singed the skin right off my palm. See?
I tell you, it seems so strange—but it sounded
as if the fire itself were playing the music now.
That's why I stayed. I wanted to listen. Hear how
the flames played.
The third floorboard from the rear of stage right
creaks whenever you step on it. The pressure of an actor's foot makes
the wood warp, sending this squeal into the air.
You think about how it happened. How many steps
it took to wear down the wood. How many actors it's taken to stand in
that one particular spot. Over and over again.
How I prepare for an evening's performance is to
make my way on stage before the house opens, simply walk about the theater—acquainting
myself with every creak, every weak spot within the wood. I want to know
where to step and where not to. I want to hear the stage, the two of
us communicating amongst ourselves—until I'm well aware of every
weakness, every fragile gap, every loose floorboard.
You imagine every actor that's come before you.
You imagine the roles that they've played, the very lines they delivered.
You imagine them as ghosts now, come and gone.
I come here before the house opens so that I can
hear them. I prepare for my part by listening to the ghosts of those
roles performed before me. They're in the wood. They're in the stage.
In the proscenium. They are everywhere.
They'll be here long after we're all gone, I can
tell you that.
audience member #4
Take the most succulent dessert you've ever tasted.
Conjure it up in your memory if you can.
A decadently dark chocolate mousse, topped off with
a white fudge flower. A bittersweet coffee pudding, sprinkled in chocolate
dust. A pecan tart, caramelized in brown sugar. Apple dumplings covered
in a white peach puree.
I tell you this now: None of them compare to the
taste of that first breath of delicious air I took into my lungs upon
escaping that building.
The members of the audience sitting in the box seats
couldn't escape through the stairwell anymore, the fire having overwhelmed
the hallway. I watched a man take his wife's hand into his own and leap
off from the balcony. (The actors knock over two chairs.) Landed
right in the percussion section, their fall cushioned by the kettle drum.
They made the most resounding impact I've ever heard.
Another couple followed them down, hurdling themselves
off the balcony and into the pit. (The actors knock over two more
chairs.) Before long, there was a heap of people in the orchestra—none
of them able to get up, their legs broken or backs snapped. (The
third pair of chairs falls.)
Buried below those bodies, at the very bottom of
this heap—you'll find our instruments underneath the rest.
You'll find a French horn, its funnel crushed under
the weight of some woman's fall. Its valves collapsed, its brass covered
This is my instrument.
This is how the fire had a harmony of its own.
(The chairs are pulled back into the two columns,
tipped over. AUDIENCE MEMBER 5 takes a book from the pile
of junk and starts ripping pages out of it while she talks.)
audience member #5
Somewhere within the rafters of the stage, a pigeon
had built its nest. Lord knows how long ago. Long enough to raise a family.
Could've been there for years.
Wasn't until I was outside, watching the fire devour
the theatre—when I noticed, higher up, just above the building,
a pair of flaming wings taking to the sky. Then another. And another.
That family of pigeons had been trapped inside—escaping through
the receding roof, their bodies now burning. They flew through the air
as far as their wings could carry them, only to give out suddenly, falling
to the ground.
One landed right at my feet, smoke spiriting up
from its chest. The feathers had been burned off completely. What was
left behind was nothing but the bony frame, like a umbrella without its
There's this ghost story my ma always told us kids
before we'd slip off to sleep. She'd come over on a slave ship when she
was just a little thing. No older than sixteen. Just her and her older
sister, crammed in those quarters with over a hundred others. Said there
wasn't enough room to sit down, even to sleep. The two of them would
have to take turns. One sister would sleep for a few hours, resting her
head on the other's shoulder—only to wake up and trade places.
Just back and forth like that, growing weak in the knees from standing
all the time.
Ma's sister was pregnant, see? Had been for months.
Her belly swelled on board that boat, ready to let her baby go. Wasn't
until one night, when things were stormy outside, the water all rocky,
pitching that ship up and down, rain leaking in from above, the ocean
spitting in through the portholes—when, all of a sudden, ma's sister
just heads right into labor. She's giving birth on her feet, surrounded
by all those slaves. Started screaming and shouting, blood running down
her legs. Quivering in the knees.
There wasn't any room for her. Nobody budged. She's
begging for help, but there wasn't enough space for people to even breathe—let
alone give birth to some baby. Not in the middle of the ocean. Not in
the middle of some storm.
Ma's says her sister was pushed toward the ship's
side. Everybody just started grabbing her, dragging her away from ma.
Says she watched her older sister get lifted up from floor, passed over
the heads of everyone else, holding onto her belly the entire time—only
to get pushed through a porthole. Heard her scream as far as the ocean,
the sea swallowing her right up.
Suddenly, there was just that much more room to
The way my ma tells it, though—that's where
her story starts. Watching her older sister slip through that porthole.
Dreaming about her giving birth out there in that ocean. Holding onto
her baby in the cold water. Two of them drifting for an eternity. Out
I couldn't help but start dreaming about her, myself.
Always saw auntie in my sleep, slipping through my window. Cradling her
baby, as blue as that sea.
She'd never leave me alone.
When word got out that there was a fire down at
the theatre, I went. Didn't need to look where I was going. Simply followed
the flames. You could see them from all the way cross town, lifting up
into the sky.
First thing I find are these women standing at the
windows. Glass comes showering down. Shatters across the street. I'm
standing down below, only to watch these women leap. One after another.
Just jumping out from the windows. They're getting pushed by the people
behind them, forced to fall.
I see this one woman with her clothes on fire. She
hits the ground, the ribs of her dress just about the only thing left
of her—the rest in flames.
Never seen anything like that before. Not in my
Only in my dreams.
For every woman that come jumping out from that
window, I'd stand right beneath them—holding my arms out, like
this. Just catching them, one by one.
They say I saved thirty six lives that night. Just
catching those folks getting shoved out the window.
But I'll tell you this: Seems like I only saved
one. For every lady that came falling into my arms, all I saw was my
ma's sister. Over and over again.
My family came to this country with ghosts shackling
our backs already. I don't need your ghosts haunting me, to boot. Keep
your own ghosts, why don't you?
(In the Richmond production, this section was
done by several actors. Quite chaotic, lots of movement.)
Five hundred and ninety eight people had to funnel
their way through those doors, there. Nearly all of Richmond had come
to the theatre that night.
Five hundred and eighteen of them were adults. Eighty
tickets were sold at a reduced rate to children.
Five hundred and ninety eight.
The human body holds about three hundred and fifty
bones at birth, only for a few of them to fuse together the farther into
adulthood you go. Once you've reached your majority, your skeleton's
solidified itself into a slim two hundred and six bones. So the older
you get, the less of skeleton you have. You actually lose around . .
. one hundred and forty four bones.
So let's estimate that those eighty tickets went
to children with all three hundred and fifty bones. Three hundred and
fifty times eighty equals . . . twenty eight thousand bones, from
the children alone.
Take the five hundred and eighteen tickets bought
at general admission and multiply them by two hundred and six and you
come out to somewhere around . . . one hundred six thousand seven
hundred and eight bones, from the adults alone.
That's what, then . . . ? One hundred thirty
four thousand seven hundred eight bones, all under one roof.
Seventy of those five hundred and ninety eight perished
in the fire. Of those seventy, fifty were women. Twenty were men. Men
have one rib missing from the equation, pending on your religious affiliations. The
lord God took one of Adam's ribs and closed up the place with flesh.
The lord God made a woman from the rib He had taken out of the man. Carry
the one rib over and add that to the women and it balances itself out
at somewhere around . . . seventy thousand ribs. Give or take.
Consider that twenty of those that perished were
children at three hundred fifty and that tallies up to . . . seven
Tally up the remaining fifty at two hundred six
and that amounts to . . . ten thousand three hundred bones.
Altogether . . . seventeen thousand three hundred
All piled up in neat heaps. In the orchestra pit.
In the aisle. At the exit. Near the windows along the second floor.
Now you try telling me whose are whose.
(By now the ladders and chairs have been reconfigured
into a shape reminiscent of a pile of dead bodies.)
Right here, piled upright, around a dozen high,
there lay a mass of burned bodies. Bodies of all classes and conditions
of people. Young and old, men and women, Bond and free, rich and poor.
Some of them were burned so badly, it was practically impossible to discern
who exactly they were. Others looked nearly uninjured—and yet,
life had left their bodies. All cold and stiff.
This was the aisle. Where it used to be. I can remember
it, as if it were still there—leading up to the exit. The aisle
was narrow enough that two people could scarcely pass one another at
a time, funneling the audience through. We always had to hold the curtain
by five minutes, simply to seat everyone.
The roof hadn't been plastered. It had a sheathing
of pine planks, layered with these flimsy shingles. When the flames were
high enough to reach the roof, it all went up in seconds. Burned right
through. Those who survived said they looked up and could see the stars
in the sky—the entire ceiling completely missing, exposing the
night, the evening in clear view. Framed in flames.
The staircase was just back there, leading to the
lobby. The weight of the audience crowding onto the steps made it collapse,
over a dozen people falling into a heap of stairs.
(By now, THE REVEREND has appeared,
he sets up a chair for the PROPERTY MAN and consoles him.)
I built this theatre. I headed the committee that
constructed this building, setting the stage for the fire.
People ask me if I ever felt guilty. If I felt responsible
for those that died.
The only answer I've ever given was in my actions.
Shortly thereafter, I headed the committee that built the Monumental
Church—constructing it right on top of where the theatre had been.
What more do you want from me?
They buried all those unknown bones in the orchestra
pit. Instead of some cemetery, the city's making a grave out of the area
where the walls of this theatre once were.
(The REVEREND becomes the doctor's
Our houses have all become hospitals now.
You wouldn't believe the number of people I've seen
this week, wheezing their way into my office. Half of the city has come
to me, complaining about smoke inhalation. Peering down as many throats
as I have, I swear—I should be in the chimney sweeping business.
I could just as well have been staring down these people's stove-pipes.
The singed nasal hairs. The burns around the mouth.
And all that ash, lining up along the trachea.
Everything's phlegmy this week. I've pulled out
a spittoon, setting it next to my desk. Before I even ask for my patient
to open up and say aah, I insist that they spit for me. If their
saliva's gone gray, then I know for a fact that their lungs are full
of fluid—which means I have to operate, right away.
If it's black, then God help them. They'll be drowning
in their sleep within the week.
There are certain ironies to fire. I can think of
two, just off the top of my head.
First one being, as babies—a fresh set of
lungs are meant to sound crepitant. Before that first breath of air,
the tissues crackle. Sounds like a fire inside your chest.
Your first breath is a blaze of oxygen, opening
up your lungs.
Second, this being the heart of the tobacco industry—we
of the medical profession are privately aware of the dangers
of inhaling cigar smoke. Smoking causes the exact amount of damage to
the lungs as a fire would, simply extended over a considerably lengthy
amount of time. Our bodies are their own little playhouses that we've
set ablaze—burning our insides out, one cigar at a time.
Hmm . . .
We write these words to be eternal. Ever read a
dead play? There's nothing more dismal than a script that hasn't been
performed for years. There's something . . . musty to it. The words sound
gummy to the tongue. Congealed, even. You can hear the cobwebs connecting
the sentences together.
Playwrights never die. Wish they would. Ghoulish,
yes. But definitely not dead. Their hopes at eternity come at a price.
Acting as if they've got a chance at immortality. For every playwright
I've ever come into contact with, it's the same old argument—Here's
my chance at leaving my mark. My work will live beyond me. My words will
be uttered well passed my life.
You'd think they'd made a deal with the Devil. That's
what the Protestants would have you believe, anyway.
Ghouls, all of them. Every playwright I ever met
was one of the undead, wandering around aimlessly backstage. Shuffling
their heals to find the next scrap of life to sink their mossy teeth
You don't believe me? Try talking to one. See how
well your conversation goes.
The Bleeding Nun
(In both productions, this was performed as
a kind of PYRAMUS AND THISBEE play-within-a-play. The worst
performance of a play you could possibly imagine. The narrator parts
were divvied up amongst three cast members, with the remaining cast
playing RAYMOND, AGNES and the NUN)
Where yon proud turrets crown the rock,
Seest thou a warrior stand?
He sighs to hear the castle clock,
Say midnight is at hand.
It strikes, and now his lady fair,
Comes tripping from her hall.
Her heart is rent by deep despair,
And tears in torrents fall.
"Ah! Woe is me, my love," she cried,
"What anguish wrings my heart.
Ah! Woe is me," she said, and sigh'd,
"We must for ever part."
"Not so, my Agnes!" Raymond cried,
"For leave thee will I never.
Thou art mine, and I am thine,
Body and soul for ever!
Oft have you heard old Ellinore,
Your nurse, with horror tell,
How robed in white, and stain'd with gore,
Appears a specter fell.
And each fifth year, at dead of night,
Stalks through the castle gate,
Which, by ancient solemn rite,
For her must open wait.
Soon as to some far distant land,
Retires to-morrow's sun,
With torch and dagger in her hand,
Appears the Bleeding Nun.
Now you shall play the Bleeding Nun,
Array'd in robes so white,
And at the solemn hour of one,
Stalk forth to meet your knight."
"For I am thine," fair Agnes cried.
"And leave thee will I never,
I am thine, and thou art mine,
Body and soul forever!"
Fair Agnes sat within her bower,
Array'd in robes so white,
And waited the long wish'd-for hour,
When she should meet her knight.
And Raymond, as the clock struck one,
Before the castle stood.
And soon came forth his lovely Nun,
Her white robes stain'd in blood.
He bore her in his arm away,
And placed her on her steed.
And to the maid he thus did say,
As on they rode with speed.
"Oh Agnes! Agnes! thou art mine,
And leave thee will I never,
Thou art mine, and I am thine,
Body and soul for ever!"
"Oh Raymond! Raymond, I am thine,
And leave thee will I never,
I am thine, and thou art mine,
Body and soul for ever!"
A whirling blast from off the stream
Threw back the maiden's veil.
Don Raymond gave a hideous scream,
And felt his spirits fail.
Then down his limbs, in strange affright,
Cold dews to pour begun,
No Agnes met his shudd'ring sight,
"God! 'Tis the Bleeding Nun!"
A form of more than mortal size,
All ghastly, pale, and dead,
Fix'd on the Knight her livid eyes,
And thus the specter said:
"Oh Raymond! Raymond! I am thine,
And leave thee will I never!
I am thine, and thou art mine,
Body and soul for ever!"
(The actress who played the NUN turns
to the audience.)
On stage, I was the Bleeding Nun.
To the people of Richmond, I am the Bleeding Nun.
My daughter had sat in one of the boxes along the
balcony, with the rest of the acting company's children and family—watching
me perform on stage, only a few feet away. She knew the role just as
well as I did. If not better. I'd raised her playing that part. The other
members of the company always teased her—or was it me? Insisting
that she should be my understudy.
When the theatre began to burn, I escaped through
the backstage door—hoping I'd find my daughter on the other side
of the building, waiting amongst all the other family members. It completely
slipped my mind that I was still in costume, the entire front-side of
my dress drenched in stage blood. For every man and woman I ran up to
in the street, they would only stare—shocked at the sight of me
standing there, covered in gore. Begging them to help me find my daughter.
Had they seen my daughter? Running up and down the block, frantically
calling out her name. Sifting through the growing crowd of onlookers. Charlotte?
You didn't need to perish in that theatre to have
died in the fire.
I'm a ghost to these people. My occupation is gone.
I dress in weeds. When it came time for the company to leave Richmond,
I couldn't bring myself to abandon my only child. And now, when I walk
down the streets, I can hear the children whispering behind my back—That's
her. That's the Bleeding Nun.
(Music. The set is reconfigured to how it was
when the REVEREND consoled the PROPERTY MAN and
the image of the two of them is recreated. This monologue is delivered
to the PROPERY MAN.)
I can say this within private company. Heaven forbid
if it were to be uttered elsewhere.
The theatre fire offered us an opportunity.
Quite frankly, it kick-started the Second Great
Awakening. It was . . . mobilizing. Inspiring, how about that?
By all means, feel sympathy towards those who perished.
But may I remind you, as good Christians—we need to be an enemy
of the theatre. Look upon this fire as an act of God. If there will ever
be a finer example of hell on earth, I pray it never befall us.
The people of Richmond had become neglectors of
God, plain and simple. The sins of the theatre had taken grip. God simply
made his presence known.
Look upon Job. By punishing him, God warned the
rest. Job was the example set for everyone else. The hand of God can
fall upon you or I at any given moment, just as it had with Job.
What separated those who survived from those who
died in the fire is simple:
We now had a cause. We now had an example.
(The PROPERTY MAN crosses the stage
and delivers this to the mourning ACTRESS who has been in
a dimly lit corner the entire time, sitting on a ladder.)
We held a contest. A commission of influential Richmonders
organized a cordial competition between the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians
to see who could raise the most money to build a new church on the scorched
property. A subscription drive, if you will. What people of what faith
would pledge the most money? The land would be given over to whichever
faith reached the bid the quickest.
The Episcopalians won.
(The REVEREND'S WIFE delivers this
to her husband, who is now sitting in the chair vacated by the PROPERTY
How very little the theatre and the church agree
with each other. We are not unconscious of such occurrences happening
in the church. A similar fate has befallen the righteous, as it did with
those wicked theatre-goers. Roofs have collapsed onto congregations,
floors have fallen away.
But what has the righteous man to fear? He has devoted
his services to God.
Though the earth, and the works that are therein,
be burned up—he stands on the ashes of a universe and exclaims,
I have lost nothing.
His soul has nothing to fear but the prospect of
eternity in heaven.
Can the theatre offer the same for its casualties?
Listen to these ministers, mosquitoing scripture.
They've sunk their tongue into the bible and sucked up enough testament
to drain the gospels dry. There isn't any holiness left.
Thought I heard something buzzing about my ear.
Listening to their sermons, I feel as if I should now be wary of malaria.
They're preaching their own personal form of yellow fever. The congregation
will be dropping dead from all this religious fervor.
We'll all be swatting gospels before too long.
And look what they've done now. From the very ashes
of the theatre, a Monumental Church rose up. The Episcopalians built
their new house of worship directly over the spot where the theatre once
stood. As a testament to their faith. As a way to strengthen their congregation.
Capitalizing on this act of God.
Rushed right into building it, too. The cinders
had barely cooled. Sermons were heard coming from the pulpit as early
as the following spring.
One theatre made way for another. From the ashes
of one playhouse, we set the stage for a new one.
Ever see someone on fire? They dance. Every limb
waves through the air, as if to rid themselves of the blaze—hoping
to shake the flames away.
I tell you this now: The only other time I've seen
such fervor, such animation from the human body, was in church. The moment
the holy spirit enters the body of a parishioner, they become agitated.
Personally, I never attended the theatre all too
often. It was a . . . onflict of interest. But quite early on, I realized
there was something to be gained from the stage. Something to reap.
To better tend to my congregation, I learned how
You could say the theatre held some sway over the
church, yes. Only mildly so, though. Initially. We simply took the resources
of the stage and used them for our own means, to help spread our message.
And Richmond was ripe for it. Look at what the theatre
had done. These people were in mourning. These people were suffering.
And preaching requires presence. A magnetic personality.
The gestures, the control over the voice. Proper volume and elocution.
That takes training. Talent is only the half of it. How you utilize those
skills behind the pulpit is what really matters.
So I studied. I learned from the greats, watching
them perform. I learned every gesture and gesticulation from the actor's
bag of tricks. I learned the value of the dramatic pause. Vocal techniques.
I learned that my body was my tool and that I could use it as such.
I could've been a great actor.
And for those eight years following the fire, I
was. The only thespian to grace the stage here in Richmond was me. And
I packed the house every Sunday.
ACTRESS: It was blatant exploitation, is what it was.
REVEREND: That's not the case at all.
ACTRESS: You capitalized on our ashes.
REVEREND: Not true, not true. We merely made use
of the raw materials. The heap that was before us all. Somebody needed
to say something. Someone had to make sense of it all. So we did. The
church had been running in circles, chasing its own tail for year —losing
more and more people to the theatre every Sunday. And then the fire.
ACTRESS: No! Not then the fire.
REVEREND: Yes, the fire . . .
ACTRESS: Don't chalk this up to an act of God.
REVEREND: What would you call it then?
ACTRESS: An accident.
REVEREND: There are no accidents.
ACTRESS: It was an accident.
REVEREND: It was a calling.
ACTRESS: It was a candle.
REVEREND: It was God in that flame.
ACTRESS: You know what's so amazing about all this?
You're on a stage, too—just as much as any actor is.
REVEREND: I don't deny it. I never did.
ACTRESS: You just built yours on the bones of those
REVEREND: How can you say that?
ACTRESS: You criticize the theatre while you stand
on stage, like some hypocrite!
REVEREND: Have you ever been to one of my sermons?
ACTRESS: Have you ever been to one of my shows?
REVEREND: I go to bed early on Saturdays.
ACTRESS: I sleep in on Sundays.
(During this next section, the rest of the cast breaks character
and reconfigures the stage to be exactly the same as present, after
which they exit walking in near-slow-motion. The REVEREND'S
WIFE lights a candle that she retrieves from the pile of junk.)
The Theatre of Venice was struck by lightning, 1769.
Dozens were trampled to death. The Amsterdam playhouse took fire, 1772.
Seven people suffocated from smoke. The theatre at Sargossa, 1772. Nearly
half the audience perished. The Palais Royal burnt to the ground, 1781—during
the French opera, of all things. The theatre at Montpelier, 1783. Five
hundred lives were lost there. The theatre at Mentz, 1786. The London
Opera House, 1789. The Royal Circus, 1805. The theatre at Altona, 1807.
The theatre at Berlin, 1808. All burned down, hundreds of persons burnt
And you ask me why I never go to the theatre.
People refuse to look back at their tragedies. They
insist that for every current catastrophe, they were the first to experience
it. But history proves otherwise. Tragedy is nothing new. To you or to
the other hundreds of thousands of people who've experienced it. Try
whining to the people who died in the fire at the Rickett's Circus in
Philadelphia. The Pantheon. The Covent Garden.
From this fire, the people of Richmond will weep.
They'll beseech for God's good will to spare them from such hardship.
But I'll tell you this: You just wait until the
next generation comes. The same will happen to them, soon enough. And
the next. And the next. And what none of them will ever realize is that
it's happened all before. Particularly in Richmond.
This city deserves to burn down.
(The Ghost Light relights. The REVEREND'S
WIFE exits through the house as the theme music blares. After she
exits, the ghost light slowly dims. When it is out, the play has ended.)
Afterthoughts by the Director
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
So far from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
By night, and am not silent
How do we cope with tragedy? How does tragedy become
history? What do we, fallible creatures that we are, do in the face of
immense, unexplainable disaster?
We have in our recent history had much experience
with these questions. I remember vividly walking in Brooklyn on a beautiful,
sunny, cloudless day in September when the super of my building told
me that two jets had slammed into the World Trade Center, just on the
other side of the Manhattan Bridge, less than a mile away. I remember
getting into the subway, catching the last train into Manhattan before
the subways closed down, going to work as if an epoch changing event
wasn't occurring all around me. I remember never thinking for a moment
that I would spend the rest of the day desperately contacting loved ones,
walking miles all over the city and finally coming home, where a green-black
cloud hung over my neighborhood for what felt like forever and oddly
smelling dust collected on my windowsill.
Tragedy has a power over us almost unequaled by
anything else. It focuses us, forces us to be decisive, and through this
shows our innermost panicked essence. The central event of this play,
the Great Richmond Theater Fire of 1811, had that effect on the people
of this city. Clay McLeod Chapman takes this event and by representing
real people, opinions, and events from the time creates a mosaic of tragedy.
By weaving together over twenty four individual voices, each giving its
own little snapshot of the fire, what emerges is a poetic and powerful
accounting of human response to disaster.
Clay brought me this script in August 2004, and
I leapt at the chance to be involved. Here was a play that, though its
focus is on an event so far in the past as to be abstract, had real and
concrete things to say about our condition in America today. Here was
Richmond's own Spoon River Anthology, a playground for actors
and directors to test their creative mettle in order to create a compelling,
challenging, socially relevant piece of theater that speaks to the past,
present, and future. And on top of all of that, it's funny.
Enduring questions survive for the simple fact
that there can be no satisfactory answers to them. Theater at its best
is a process of constantly trying to ask better questions, over and over
again, searching for the unanswerable and then presenting our questions
on stage in as entertaining a way as possible. With any luck, a production
of volume of smoke can do just that.