The members of the Court, all standing on the same tier, seem interested in the spectacle of the dancing Negroes, who suddenly stop short, breaking off the minuet. The Negroes approach the footlights, make a ninety degree turn, and bow ceremoniously to the Court,1 then to the audience. One of them steps forth and speaks, addressing now the audience, now the Court:
ARCHIBALD: Ladies and gentlemen . . . (The Court burst into very shrill, but very well orchestrated laughter. It is not free and easy laughter. This laughter is echoed by the same but even shriller laughter of the Negroes who are standing about Archibald. The Court, bewildered, becomes silent.) . . . My name is Archibald Absalom Wellington. (He bows, then moves from one to the other, naming each in turn.) . . . This is Mr. Deodatus Village (he bows) . . . Miss Adelaide Bobo (she bows) . . .
Mr. Edgar Alas Newport News (he bows) . . . Mrs. Augusta Snow (she remains upright) . . . well . . . well . . . madam (roaring angrily) bow! (she remains upright) . . . I’m asking you, madam, to bow! (extremely gentle, almost grieved) I’m asking you, madam, to bow–it’s a performance. (Snow bows) . . . Mrs. Felicity Trollop Pardon (she bows) . . . and Miss Diop–Stephanie Virtue Secret-rose Diop.
DIOUF: And me.
ARCHIBALD: And he.–As you see, ladies and gentlemen, just as you have your lilies and roses, so we–in order to serve you–shall use our beautiful, shiny black make-up. It is Mr. Deodatus Village who gathers the smoke-black and Mrs. Felicity Trollop Pardon who thins it out in our saliva. These ladies help her. We embellish ourselves so as to please you. You are white. And spectators. This evening we shall perform for you . . .
THE QUEEN ( interrupting the speaker): Bishop! Bishop-at-large!
THE MISSIONARY (leaning toward her, though without changing place): Hallelujah!
THE QUEEN (plaintively): Are they going to kill her? (The Negroes below burst into the same shrill and orchestrated laughter as before. But Archibald silences them.)
ARCHIBALD: Be quiet. If all they have is their nostalgia, let them enjoy it.
SNOW: Grief, sir, is another of their adornments . . .
THE VALET (looking about him): What’s happened to my chair?
THE MISSIONARY (doing the same): And to mine? Who took it?
THE VALET (to the Missionary, querulously): If my chair hadn’t disappeared too, you’d have suspected me. It was my turn to sit down, but I don’t know where the hell my chair is. You can count on my good humor and devotion if I have to remain standing all through the show.
THE QUEEN (increasingly languid): I repeat–are they going to kill her?
THE MISSIONARY (very somberly): But Madam . . . (A pause.) she’s dead!
THE VALET: Is that all you can say to your sovereign? (as if to himself) This crowd could stand a good clouting.
THE MISSIONARY: The poor unfortunate has been in my prayers since this morning. In the very forefront.
THE QUEEN (leaning forward to call Snow): Is it true, young lady, that all we have left is our sadness and that it’s one of our adornments?
ARCHIBALD: And we haven’t finished embellishing you. This evening we’ve come again to round out your grief.
THE GOVERNOR (shaking his fist and making as if to descend): If I let you!
THE VALET (holding him back): Where are you going?
THE GOVERNOR (with a martial air): To stamp out the Blacks!
(The Negroes below shrug their shoulders in unison.)
ARCHIBALD: Be quiet. (to the audience): This evening we shall perform for you. But, in order that you may remain comfortably settled in your seats in the presence of the drama that is already unfolding here, in order that you be assured that there is no danger of such a drama’s worming its way into your precious lives, we shall even have the decency–a decency learned from you–to make communication impossible. We shall increase the distance that separates us–a distance that is basic–by our pomp, our manners, our insolence–for we are also actors. When my speech is over, everything here–(he stamps his foot in a gesture of rage) here!–will take place in the delicate world of reprobation. If we sever bonds, may a continent drift off and may Africa sink or fly away . . .
(For some moments, the Governor, who had taken a paper from his pocket, has been reading in a low voice.)
THE QUEEN: May it flyaway–was that a metaphor?
THE GOVERNOR (reading more and more loudly): “. . . when I fall to earth, scurvily pierced by your spears, look closely, you will behold my ascension. (in a thundering voice) My corpse will be on the ground, but my soul and body will rise into the air . . . ”
THE VALET (shrugging his shoulders): Learn your role backstage. As for that last sentence, it oughtn’t to be rolled off as if it were a proclamation.
THE GOVERNOR (turning to the Valet): I know what I’m doing. (He resumes his reading.) “You’ll see them and you’ll die of fright. First, you’ll turn pale, and then you’ll fall, and you’ll be dead . . .” (He folds the paper and puts it back into his pocket very conspicuously.) That was a device to let them know that we know. And we know that we’ve come to attend our own funeral rites. They think they’re compelling us, but it is owing to our good breeding that we shall descend to death. Our suicide . . .
THE QUEEN (touching the Governor with her fan): . . . Preparations for it have begun, but let the Negro speak. Look at that poor, gaping mouth of his, and those columns of flies streaming out of it . . . (she looks more closely, leaning forward) . . . or swarming into it. (to Archibald): Continue.
ARCHIBALD (after bowing to the Queen): . . . sink or fly away. (The members of the Court protect their faces, as if a bird were flying at them.) . . . but let it be off! (A pause.) When we leave this stage, we are involved in your life. I am a cook, this lady is a sewing-maid, this gentleman is a medical student, this gentleman is a curate at St. Anne’s, this lady . . . skip it. Tonight, our sole concern will be to entertain you. So we have killed this white woman. There she lies. (He points to the catafalque. The members of the Court wipe away a tear with a very theatrical gesture and heave a long sob of grief to which the Negroes respond with their very shrill and perfectly orchestrated laughter.) . . . Only we could have done it the way we did it–savagely. And now, listen . . . (he takes a step back) . . . listen . . . oh, I was forgetting, thieves that we are, we have tried to filch your fine language. Liars that we are, the names I have mentioned to you are false. Listen . . . (He steps back, but the other actors have stopped listening to him. Mrs. Felicity, an imposing sixty-year-old negress, has gone up to the top tier, right, where she sits down in an armchair, facing the Court.)
BOBO: The flowers, the flowers! Don’t touch them!
SNOW (taking an iris for her bodice): Are they yours, or the murdered woman’s?
BOBO: They’re there for the performance. Which doesn’t require that you burst into bloom. Put back the iris. Or the rose. Or the tulip.
ARCHIBALD: Bobo’s right. You wanted to be more attractive–there’s some blacking left.
SNOW: All right. Although . . . (She spits out the flower after biting into it.)
ARCHIBALD: No needless cruelty, Snow. And no garbage here.
(Snow picks up the flower and eats it. Archibald runs after Snow, who hides behind the catafalque. Village catches her and brings her back to Archibald, who wants to lecture her.)
SNOW (to Village): A regular cop!
ARCHIBALD (to Snow): The rite doesn’t call for your behaving like a spoiled child. (While all the other Negroes stand still and listen, he turns to Newport News): And you, sir, you’re superfluous. As everything is secret, you’ve got to get going. Clear out. Go tell them. Let them know we’ve started. They’re to do their job just as we’ll do ours. Everything will go off in the usual way. I hope so.
(Newport News bows and is about to leave by the left wing, but Village stops him.)
VILLAGE: Not that way, you fool. You were told not to come back. You’re spoiling everything.
NEWPORT NEWS: The trouble . . .
ARCHIBALD (interrupting him): Later. Get going. (Exit Newport News, left.)
SNOW (spitting out the iris): You always start by picking on me.
BOBO: You let your moods get the better of you. You give way to your temperament, and you’ve no right to.
SNOW: I have so! Because of my special outlook on the whole business. If it weren’t for me . . .
ARCHIBALD: You’ve done neither more nor less than the others.
SNOW: And my moods are special too, and so is my temperament, and they suit your purpose. And if it weren’t for my jealousy where you’re concerned, Village . . .
VILLAGE (interrupting her): We know all about it. You’ve repeated it often enough. Long before her death (pointing to the catafalque) you hated her bitterly. But her death wasn’t meant to signify merely that she lost her life. With tenderness we all brooded over it, and not lovingly. (A long sob from the Court.)
SNOW: Really? Then let me tell you now–all of you–I’ve been burning for so long, burning with such ardent hatred, that I’m a heap of ashes.
DIOUF: What about us? What are we?
SNOW: It’s not the same thing, gentlemen. There was a touch of desire in your hatred of her, which means a touch of love. But I, and they (pointing to the other women), we, the negro women, we had only our wrath and rage. When she was killed, we felt no awe, no fear, but no tenderness either. We were dry, gentlemen. Dry, like the breasts of old Bambara women. (The Queen bursts out laughing. The Missionary motions to her to be quiet. Holding her handkerchief to her mouth, the Queen gradually calms down.)
ARCHIBALD (severely): The tragedy will lie in the color black! It’s that that you’ll cherish, that that you’ll attain, and deserve. It’s that that must be earned.
SNOW (ecstatically): My color I Why, you’re my very self! But you, Village, what was it you wanted in going after her? (She points to the catafalque.)
VILLAGE: You’re starting again with your silly suspicions. Do you want a detailed description of the humiliations she made me feel? Do you? Tell me, do you?
ALL (with a terrible cry): Yes!
VILLAGE: Negroes, you’ve yelled too soon and too loud. (He takes a deep breath.) This evening, there’ll be something new.
ARCHIBALD: You’ve no right to change anything in the ceremonial, unless, of course, you hit / upon some cruel detail that heightens it.
VILLAGE: In any case, I can keep you on tenterhooks waiting for the murder.
ARCHIBALD: You’re to obey me. And the text we’ve prepared.
VILLAGE (banteringly): But I’m still free to speed up or draw out my recital and my performance. I can move in slow motion, can’t I? I can sigh more often and more deeply.
THE QUEEN (amused): He’s charming! Continue, young man
THE JUDGE: Indeed, your Majesty is forgetting herself!
THE VALET: I rather like him, I must say. (to Village): Do sigh more often and more deeply, charming black-boy!
THE GOVERNOR (to the Valet): That’ll do! Instead of that, tell us how rubber stands on the stock exchange.
THE VALET (saluting, and in a single breath): Good-year, 4,500. (The members of the Court pull a long face.)
THE GOVERNOR: What about gold?
THE VALET: Eastern Ubangi 1,580. Saint Johnny-get-your-gun 1,050. Macupia, 2,002. M’Zaita 20,008. (The Members of the Court rub their hands.)
VILLAGE (continuing): . . . can sigh more often and more deeply, can relax in the middle of a sentence or word. Besides, I’m tired. You forget that I’m already knocked out from the crime I had to finish off before you arrived, since you need a fresh corpse for every performance.
THE QUEEN (with a cry): Oh!
THE JUDGE (fiercely): I told you so.
THE VALET (very affectedly): Don’t condemn them at the very start. Listen to them. They’re exquisitely spontaneous. They have a strange beauty. Their flesh is weightier . . .
THE GOVERNOR: Be quiet, you whippersnapper! You and your damned exoticism!
DIOUF (to Archibald): Actually, we could use the same corpse a number of times. Its presence is the thing that counts.
ARCHIBALD: What about the odor, Mr. Vicar General?
BOBO (to Archibald): Does the stench frighten you now? That’s what rises from my African soil. I, Bobo, want to draw my train over its thick waves! May I be wafted by an odor of carrion! And carried off! (to the Court) And you, pale and odorless race, race without animal odors, without the pestilence of our swamps . . .
ARCHIBALD (to Bobo): Let Virtue speak.
VIRTUE (prudently): All the same, we ought to be careful. It gets more dangerous every day. Not only for Village, but for every hunter.
SNOW: All the better. Since we’re working this evening for a Court of Justice that’s been set up especially for us, we’ll dedicate our follies to it.
ARCHIBALD: That’ll do. (to Village): Tell me, Village, there wasn’t any alert this evening either, was there? Everything went off smoothly, I hope. Where did you find her?
VILLAGE: I told you just before, when I arrived. Right after dinner, Mr. Herod Adventure and I were walking along the docks. The evening was rather mild. A little before the entrance to the bridge, there was an old tramp squatting–or lying–on a pile of rags. But I’ve told you all about it . . .