Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

A Free Man of Color

by John Guare

“[A Free Man of Color] . . . might be a masterpiece. . . . one of the three or four most stirring new plays I’ve seen.” —Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 112
  • Publication Date October 18, 2011
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4566-6
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.95
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date October 18, 2011
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9500-5
  • US List Price $14.95

About The Book

John Guare’s new play is astonishing, raucous, and panoramic. A Free Man of Color is set in boisterous New Orleans prior to the historic Louisiana Purchase. Before law and order took hold and class, racial, and political lines were drawn, New Orleans was a carnival of beautiful women, flowing wine, and pleasure for the taking. At the center of this Dionysian world is the mulatto Jacques Cornet, who commands men, seduces women, and preens like a peacock. But it is 1801 and the map of New Orleans is about to be redrawn. The Louisiana Purchase brings American rule and racial segregation to the chaotic, colorful world of Jacques Cornet and all that he represents, turning the tables on freedom and liberty.

Praise

A Free Man of Color evolves from a bustling farce into something deeper and darker but similarly exhilarating.” —USA Today

“A sumptuous table set with brocaded poesy, luxurious allusion, and hallucinatory imagery.” —Scott Brown, New York

“[A Free Man of Color] . . . might be a masterpiece. . . . one of the three or four most stirring new plays I’ve seen.” —Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal

Awards

A Finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in Drama

Excerpt

JACQUES CORNET appears, a dazzling piece of work. His coat is made of purple satin and embroidered and laced with gold. His shoes have diamond buckles. His bewigged hair, powdered. His magnificence is overwhelming. MURMUR accompanies him.

JACQUES
The year is 1801. Alas. This is the last time men will dress like this. All men equal? Clothes tell the ranks. I have taste. For that I give my daily thanks. If a book can’t be told by its cover, what good’s the book? The world would be better if it followed my lead. If I’m a book, I’m a damned good read. Murmur, introduce me&mdash

MURMUR
His name used to be—

JACQUES CORNET (cutting him off)
My name is Jacques Cornet. New Orleans is my home.

MURMUR
I’m Cupidon Murmur, his administrative assistant.

JACQUES CORNET
Last time I looked, you were my slave.

MURMUR
Which is why I stopped looking. Didn’t you used to be a slave?

JACQUES CORNET
Don’t be fresh, Murmur.

MURMUR
“My father’s heir.” A very rich, very white father, left my boss everything. Including me. I do all the work. He does nothing.

JACQUES CORNET
I beg your pardon. Each morning I can be found in my atelier, writing my play.

MURMUR
Where’d you get the nerve to write a play?

JACQUES CORNET
Brocade gave me confidence.

MURMUR
Does your masterpiece have a title?

JACQUES CORNET
A Free Man of Color.

MURMUR
What would it be about?

JACQUES CORNET
The sanctity of surfaces. The value of veneer. Lift the curtain. We begin. Lift the curtain. Is being deaf your latest claim?

MURMUR
I thought you’d like to know some crates just came.

JACQUES CORNET
Crates? Get them! You slow beast! Freedom’s not for you.

MURMUR
What happened to the show must go on? Murmur rolls in wooden crates.

JACQUES CORNET
A shipment has arrived! Persia! Asia Minor! My only prayer some evil moth hasn’t gnawed his way through sacred cloth. Open, Murmur!

MURMUR (opening crates)
I’m hurrying! I’m hurrying!

JACQUES CORNET
Look—grosgrain for trimming! Bolts of cloth never come with regret. Ahh! To be tickled by the feather of an egret. What genius hands in Samarkand wove this silk, encasing my legs like a glove in milk. The legs are so important. Revere their line, especially with a golden calf as shapely as mine. Poor innocent silks—suppose you were lost! How many years did your treacherous voyage cost?

MURMUR
Here’s a date! They left Shanghai in 1798!

JACQUES CORNET
Three years for silk to travel? I could have frozen to death. Bring out my maps! Unveil my maps!

Which Murmur does. The maps glow.

MURMUR
He collects these maps—

JACQUES CORNET
Murmur, know your place. I collect these maps. One of them must reveal the magic route to deliver me the treasures that I need like bread and water. The future is always about speed. That’s the true subject of my play. An inland river must cross this vast unknown land. A river from the isle of California that somehow meets the Mississippi—but where? It has to be there. The stakes are too high.

(Jacques starts to undress.)

The iridescence of this pink moiré will dazzle the fools who flock to my soiree. Murmur, undo this cuff. Murmur, remove this shoe. Take these crates to my chamber. Faster! Faster!

MURMUR
Yes, master master.

(to us)

I’m taking up a collection to buy my freedom. Spare change?

JACQUES CORNET
Murmur! Open the curtain or I’ll damn you to perdition.

MURMUR
Don’t the dumbest plays need exposition?

JACQUES CORNET
My play speaks for itself.

MURMUR
I’ll tell them what they need to know.

JACQUES CORNET

I wouldn’t trust you as far as a rat might speed. Dr. Toubib? Tell them what truths they need.

Jacques Cornet goes, trailing clothes, which Murmur picks up.

DR. TOUBIB enters, of African descent, a man of reason.

MURMUR
This is Dr. Toubib. He ministers to the health of the town. One day I’ll write a play.

Act One, Scene One.

Murmur lifts the curtain and wheels off the crates. Music plays: Haydn trio in G major 3rd movement.

REMY DORILANTE, JONATHAN SPARKS, LORD SIDNEY HARCOURT, and ACHILLE ALCIBIADE, and MME.MANDRAGOLA play Faro, a card game.

DR. T
The home of Jacques Cornet on the Rue de la Levee in New Orleans. Every Tuesday, he opens his home to men who come selling maps that might unmask the unmapped continent and get his clothes here quicker.

Murmur deals cards at the faro table.

DORILANTE
I mase double.

MME MANDRAGOLA
I set that.

SPARKS
Mase double again!

MME MANDRAGOLAI set that and I win.

DR. T
No one comes to the new world because they want to. This one’s been deported, this one disinherited, this one escaped the police. They spy, steal, smuggle, sometimes even work honestly, until the day their fortune will surely appear. They come to the house of Jacques Cornet to gamble what little they have. Double it. Triple it.

MURMUR
Or lose it to Jacques Cornet. The cards are fixed. My boss leaves nothing to chance.

DR. T
Today is Tuesday, February 24th—the feast of Mardi Gras. The few social barriers that exist in New Orleans are down tonight—white—black—everything in between—

MURMUR
—and there’s a lot of in between.

DR. T
Take off your twenty-first century glasses. See New Orleans as we who live here see it in 1801. The free-est city in the world. Imagine the unimaginable. Race is a celebration! See the lush palette of skin tones in New Orleans.

DORILANTE
Remy Dorilante. I am a shade called Meamelouc—white and metif.

SPARKS
Jonathan Sparks! I’m Quarteron—white and meamelouc.

HARCOURT
Lord Sidney Harcourt. I send furs from Quebec down the Mississippi to New Orleans and out to the world. I’m truly white, which gives me no privilege. Here it’s just another color.

ALCIBIADE (heavy Norwegian accent)
Achille Alcibiade from Norway. I have come to New Orleans to start a new life as a dealer in furniture. I am white.

MURMUR
How come you look like a mahogany table?

ALCIBIADE
All right—not Norway. Barbados. (back to the accent) But in New Orleans you can be whatever you declare yourself to be.

JUAN VENTURA MORALES bangs on the bedroom door. He’s quite chubby, dressed in some sort of gold armor.

MORALES
I command you to open this door for Juan Ventura Morales, appointed by His Royal Majesty Carlos Cuarto, King of Spain, as the Supreme Intendante of New Orleans.

MURMUR
Tax collector.

MORALES
I am Castilian! Pure blood!

MURMUR
His maternal grandmother had a touch of the brush.

MORALES
Among other divinely ordained powers by the kingdom of Spain, I control travel on the Mississippi.
DR. T
The Mississippi being North America’s link to the world.

MME. MANDRAGOLA (to us)
I am Mme Mandragola. From Buenos Aires. Like Joseph in the Bible, I am a coat of many colors. I supply New Orleans with the comfort of the most luscious kaleidoscope of flesh.

From behind the bedroom door we hear:

GIRLS (off)
Ohh! Ohhhhh! Ohhhhhhh! Jacques, Jacques, Jacques!

MORALES
Why do you let Jacques Cornet hoard your girls?

MME. MANDRAGOLA
He has more money than any of you. Are you going to the Mardi Gras ball tonight?

MORALES
I already have on my costume.

MME. MANDRAGOLA
Are you Sancho Panza?

MORALES
I am El Cid! The greatest hero Spain has ever known! And I am a direct descendant! (knocking on Jacques’s door) Have some consideration. I can’t keep my wife waiting.

The door to the bedroom opens. Mme. Mandragolas girls appear, en dishabille. TERPSICHORE (Terp-sikor), CALLIOPE (Kal-ee-Ope) EUTERPE (You terp) MELPOMENE (mel-pom-eeen). They run to the table and eat hungrily.

MORALES
Finally! Murmur, find me a chambre d”amour. Presto!

EUTERPE
No! This is just a break to catch my breath. I am Euterpe—

CALLIOPE
Calliope—

TERPSICHORE
Terpsichore—

MELPOMENE
Melpomene—

MME. MANDRAGOLA (to us)
We locals name ourselves after Greek gods and demi-gods and muses but give it a French twist.

MORALES (to Terpsichore)
I have decided to honor you with my body.

TERPSICHORE
Sorry! I’ve just experienced the greatest happiness of my life and don’t want to ruin it.

MORALES
Common whores refuse the Supreme Intendante of New Orleans?

TERPSICHORE
Put me in jail. Jacques Cornet has a key that unlocks the world. Dr. T, what’s the Latin word for key?

DR. T
Clavis!

TERPSICHORE
I am the portal. Jacques Cornet is the clavis.

CALLIOPE
Imagine the arm of a needy five year old reaching out to you, holding a bright red juicy apple—

MELPOMENE
—the neck of a flamingo flying home—and you’re the nest.

EUTERPE
—the trunk of a mandingo tree that goes up, up, up and at the top, there’s a gorgeous red blossom flowering.

They sigh.

MORALES
I could show you a thing or two.

THE WHORES
You have!

MORALES
Like the present size of the United States, I’m perfectly happy with what I’ve got. (beats on Jacques’ door) Cornet, you will pay for your disrespect!

ZEUS-MARIE PINCEPOUSSE appears, ignored by all.

PINCEPOUSSE (to us)
I am Zeus-Marie Pincepousse.

MURMUR
Who the hell invited you?

PINCEPOUSSE (pushing Murmur aside)
I am extremely white and my blood extremely blue. I hate being in this house, which is rightfully mine.

MURMUR
He is half-brother to Jacques Cornet. They share the same white father.

PINCEPOUSSE
But my mother was a Duchesse. His mother a mere possession. I am also the plot. I’ll be back.

Pincepousse goes. Murmur fills everyone’s wine glass.

HARCOURT
Murmur, I heard news of a rebellion upriver on your master’s sugar farm.

MURMUR
Yes, we caught wind of that rumor. Peace was restored.

SPARKS
How did you deal with it?

MURMUR
I shot the instigator.

DORILANTE
You shot a slave?

MURMUR
Not my first.

HARCOURT
But you’re a slave.

MURMUR
What does that have to do with it?

DORILANTE
Suppose you ran away?

MURMUR
But I wouldn’t.

HARCOURT
Do you want to be free?

MURMUR
You bet.

SPARKS
And what would you do if you could be free?

MURMUR
Work for Jacques Cornet.

Jacques appears in the doorway of his bedroom in a silken robe. He tosses gold to Mme. Mandragola.

JACQUES CORNET
Ladies! Round Two!

SPARKS
Jacques, see the treasures I’ve brought!

DORILANTE
I’ve painted your portrait! Jacques!

HARCOURT
Jacques! See my map!

Jacques shuts the door. PYTHAGORE, wearing a black mask, a bone in his nose, leaps at Morales.

PYTHAGORE
I am Toussaint Louverture and I want freedom!

MORALES (screams)
Take everything I have! Don’t hurt me!

PYTHAGORE (unmasking himself)
It’s Pythagore. I thought my Mardi Gras costume amusing.

SPARKS
You wouldn’t joke if you’d just returned from (whispers) Santo Domingo.

MORALES
Not so loud—The very mention of that bloody island will cause chaos here in New Orleans. We must keep the news from the slaves. I’d suggest you find a less provocative costume for tonight.

DR. T
Sante Domingue. The richest island in the Caribbean and soon to be named Haiti. Toussaint Louverture, after a long bloody battle, has finally taken control of the island from the French planters and is declared governor-general for life of this new sovereign nation.

TOUSSAINT LOUVERTURE appears.

TOUSSAINT
Behold this land, which we have watered with our blood. We, humble victims, were ready for anything, not wishing at first to abandon our master who gave us freedom. We were mistaken; those who, next to God, should have proved our fathers, had become tyrants, monsters, unworthy of the fruits of our labors. God, who fights for the innocent, is our guide; he will never abandon us. Accordingly this is our motto—victory or death for freedom!

DR. T
But the French planters have not given up. Toussaint may be the Bonaparte of Sante Domingo but he still needs outside support to maintain control.

TOUSSAINT
Hear me, glorious first consul Bonaparte, from the first of the blacks to the first of the whites, I know you will give our new government the supplies we urgently need!

DR. T
Napoleon’s not emperor yet. He’s still first consul, pulling France together after her revolution. Let me take you to the heart of it—Paris—to the Tuilleries, a malodorous palace along side the Louvre. The same question Jacques Cornet asks of how to get to the Orient torments Napoleon.

Enter NAPOLEON in a bathtub, studying a terry cloth map of the world.

NAPOLEON
The route to India through Egypt should be mine. But the British stopped me. I will retaliate. But how!

DR. T
Josephine, his wife, not yet Empress, enters.

JOSEPHINE enters, with tarot cards.

JOSEPHINE (distraught)
Look at my clothes—I am laughed at—spots on my muslin.

NAPOLEON
Then wash them and leave me alone. How? How?

JOSEPHINE
Wash them in Paris? Only the water of the West Indies possesses magic bubbles to make my muslin gleam like teeth!

NAPOLEON
We have no money to go to the West Indies for your laundry or your teeth.

JOSEPHINE
Oh, but if England’s involved, you spend any amount to defeat them, but little Josephine wants one little spot taken out of her muslin and Citizen Big Shot First Consul cries poverty. (dealing tarot cards) Money, money. That’s a laugh.

Toussaint enters, writing a letter.

TOUSSAINT
Come to the West Indies and enforce the ideals of the Revolution!

TALLEYRAND enters, bearing the letter.

DR. T
Toussaint’s letter arrives months later into the hands of Talleyrand, Napoleon’s foreign minister. Talleyrand is known fondly in diplomatic circles as “a silk stocking crammed with shit.”

TALLYRAND
Destiny smiles yet again on Talleyrand. I can parlay this to my advantage— (Tallyrand hands the letter to Napolean) Magnificent Beacon of Destiny, our future has arrived.

NAPOLEON (scanning the letter, discarding the letter)
Aside from putting sugar in my morning coffee, the West Indies hold no interest for me—

TALLYRAND
Savior of France, don’t you see what this could be? An entry into America!

JOSEPHINE (reading the letter)
These savages wash their clothes in West Indies water, but me—covered with spots like a Dalmatian dog—

NAPOLEON
GO!

TALLYRAND
Feel the future pulsate.

NAPOLEON
The Nile.

TALLYRAND
The Mississippi. The river to the Orient surely lies here within America. This vast unknown covers volcanoes spewing gold.

JOSEPHINE (dealing her cards)
Yet again “money”. Can tarot lie?

NAPOLEON
How to crush Great Britain?

TALLYRAND
Say it, oh Jewel of the Future: England has defeated me.

NAPOLEON
No! If the Gargantua of England cannot defeat the mouse of their colonies, how can England defeat the splendor of me?

TALLYRAND
And yet they have! Sail to America.

NAPOLEON
The British would attack me at sea. I hate the British. I hate Shakespeare. I hate Chaucer. I hate Richard the Lion Hearted. I hate Henry V. When the future comes, I will hate Big Ben. Queen Victoria. James Bond. Charles Dickens. Florence Nightingale. British Air. Julie Andrews. Mick Jagger. No. I will like him. Wait! I see how to crush Great Britain! (Napoleon stands up in the tub. Instead of a penis, he sports a giant cannon) I’ll conquer Europe. I’ll humiliate the British as they have humiliated me. Never mention America again.

Napoleon goes.