A few years ago, I wrote a play about family and memory called Research. It was performed a couple times, in a theater next door to where Daniel Radcliffe was singing and dancing.
I wrote the play’s first drafts in prose. Mostly because I was aggravated with typing characters’ names again and again and again. Right before the first table read, I changed it to “script” format so that the actors wouldn’t hate me. Then, after the play had its short run, I decided to translate the script back into prose.
Things changed a lot in the translating. So much so that the play became just as much about it existing in two versions, prose and script, as it was about family and memory.
On October 1, Research: A Novel for Performance will be published by Civil Coping Mechanisms. The book presents both versions, side by side, along with a “Note on the text” that explains all this a lot better than how I am doing it now, plus an Afterword by Nick Leavens, the director and producer of the play itself. To celebrate, Big Lucks and Vol.1 Brooklyn are simultaneously publishing excerpts.
Below is the prose version of a bit from early in the play. Click here to see the corresponding play side.
“Please Join Us For A Conversation About The Meaning Of Your Life”
So no, then, she says.
She says it, doesn’t ask.
No, he says.
She sits quiet, leans back in her wooden chair.
But why, she says.
The man is quiet.
Why would you think you could read in here? the man asks. He has an accent.
See a man and woman sitting in a room with a long mirror along one wall. They face each other across a wood table. Wooden chairs with red padding. Cups of coffee on the table. Styrofoam empties drip in the trashcan. The woman taps a painted index fingernail into the wood surface. The man looks from her face to her finger, then back to her face.
Because the last woman read, the woman says. Or she had a book at least.
The man says nothing.
The woman that was here before, I mean. Before me.
The woman whom was here before you, you mean, the man with the accent says.
They look at each other.
That’s what I said, the woman continues. She had a book. I know she did.
They sit quiet.
Do you not understand what I’m asking?
What makes you think there was someone here before? the man asks. He opens a folder set before him on the table.
Because it smells like paper, the woman says. Like my mother was here. Sometimes the smell of books or libraries reminds me of my mother.
The woman holds her nose in the air, sniffs.
You let the last woman read, didn’t you, she says.
The man is looking at the papers in his folder. He says nothing. He hums. The woman continues.
Smells like must. You know, must? Musty. Like bookstore mold. Like that. You know. You understand. Like a used bookstore’s moldy basement in rainy autumn. Like thunder rain in the South and leaves ground into the dirt, like crackly bookstore floorboards. Like yellow copies of Walden, with your nose pressed in the gutter all papercutty. And rain boots, Wellies–wellingtons, you follow? And beef Wellingtons. Cider apples, etcetera.
She takes a deep inhale through her nose.
Smell that? she asks. She smiles.
The man looks up from the papers in his hands. He stops humming. He sighs. He props his elbows on the table and opens his mouth to say something but the woman cuts him off.
Plus someone is always “here” before we are “here,” you follow? What seems like first is never, really. To you at least. Not first, or even second, really. Not really. Columbus had to kill a lot of people to make believe—to make others and us, I mean—believe he was first.
The man puts his papers down. He raises his eyebrows and lifts his hands in a gesture of exasperated explanation. I was the only one here when you got here, he says.
Well, I won’t kill you for it, she answers. She smiles broadly down the length of the table.
* * *
Behind the glass, in a small and dark room, a boy sits in a row of chairs watching the woman and man at the table. The boy is collegiate, intent, writing very fast on a yellow legal pad. It is very dark. The boy is a younger man much smaller than the man at the table, and a different race. He is alone in this room, crowded by so many chairs.
The woman at the table is talking. If she were to look directly at the boy, she would see only her smiling reflection staring back from the mirror, like a giant frame in which someone exactly like her sits, but this one left handed instead of right, every movement exactly opposite and exactly the same.
Behind the mirror, the boy is writing everything she says.
* * *
The woman says, It smells like she was reading a really old book.
The man at the table brushes a hand across his mouth. The last woman who was here, was here yesterday, he says. And she left yesterday. They’ve cleaned since then.
He points to the trashcan.
Whatever you smell isn’t her, he says. It wasn’t her book.
I mean, that is to say, if she had a book. Meaning perhaps it was these papers.
The woman fingers her scarf fringe. Twirls it. Wraps it around one finger and then another and another as if holding a small pet snake.
I only read new books, she says. Fresh off the presses so to speak. So fresh there’s no smell.
I’m sorry, Miss Pearle, the man says, But we really need to move on.
Behind the glass, in the back of the dark room, a door opens and an older woman appears. The boy turns from his work and nods as if expecting her, and then returns to his writing. The older woman takes a seat behind the boy in a second row of chairs facing the glass. She is wearing a sweater with a large broach in the shape of a small fish glittering in the near dark. She whispers something to the boy. No, the boy answers. She hasn’t said anything about you yet.
* * *
Except warm, the woman at the table continues. I’d say new books have a warmer smell. You understand what I mean? Comprehend? Acknowledge? See? You see. You see, you do. Warm isn’t a smell. Not really. Not in the way we use the word. Not even as much as cold can be a smell. But you get the idea. I have an idea of it so you must have an idea of it. Is it a stretch to think like that? That because I understand, it follows that you should, too? At least vaguely understand. Is there a word for that? There must be. In this language or in the next. There are words for everything. Different languages, similar meanings.
With all due respect, Miss Pearle, we really must—
Oh, of course you know. You see what I mean. You get it. “A new book can smell warm.” Just leave it at that. That’s the strange thing about new books. They are warm, then cool off after printing, but still they get warmer with age, with all the handling. Even in the musty basement, the yellow pages. Warmer, not colder, not like—
We really do need to move on, the man says, stronger now, louder.
Why? the woman asks. She points to acknowledge the mirror for the first time. Isn’t this the point of all this?
The man points to the tabletop, then to the mirror, then to the woman herself.
We do have specific topics to cover, Miss Pearle, he says. This, them, you—all of it has certain objectives.
Such as your father. The day he died.
The woman is quiet.
The man smiles. What he smelled like, if you prefer.
Warm, or cold, you understand.
Miss Pearle coughs, adjusts rigidly in her seat. Tightens the scarf. Okay, she says. My father. I see what you mean. Talk about my father.
Yes, she repeats.
They sit quiet.
Are you going to talk? she asks.
The man looks to a scrap of paper. Your father was a veteran, wasn’t he?
Of a war.
Oh. Yes. The woman nods, salutes.
He knew his way around a gun, is what I mean, Miss Pearle.
Oh yes. If a gun were on the floor, I’ve no doubt he could find his way around it, yes.
The man smiles, chuckles, very slightly. Funny, he says.
You think guns are funny?
No, I don’t. I think you are being—
There is nothing funny about guns, my father would have said. There is nothing funny about guns excepting the cartoon guns which shoot out flags with messages instead of bullets, like with the coyote, the bird in the desert.
Okay, so let’s talk about how guns aren’t funny.
The woman makes a gun with her hand, points it at the man.
Now imagine an advertisement for a taxidermist hanging from the barrel, she explains.
BANG! KAPOW! BOOM-A-ZOOM!
The woman laughs, a gun of each hand, firing about the room. At the man, the moderator across the table. At the images of him and her in the mirror.
As to your father, Lucy. I have the last words he said to you here.
The moderator shuffles through his papers.
What you reported as his last words, at least, he says.
Lucy blows imagined smoke from the barrels of her fingertips.
What I reported, she repeats.
What I done said to the sheriff.
Well, it was very cold that night. I remember that. They had me in the paddy wagon, the police car. The lights were on, but no sirens. They brought me an uncomfortable blanket. That blanket—you could put a fire out with that blanket it was so cold.
She points one of the guns at the mirror.
The moderator raises a new piece of paper and holds it out to Lucy.
Do you know what it says here?
About the blanket?
About the fire, then.
No, about what your father said to you when you found him—
Lucy places her handguns flat on the table.
Joseph Riippi is the author of five books, including Research: A Novel for Performance and Because, which Flavorwire called one of “the best indie books of 2014 so far.” He lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.