The first thing is that the audience appear to be confronted by their own reflection in a huge mirror. Impossible. However, back there in the gloom—not at the footlights—a bank of plush seats and pale smudges of faces. (The total effect having been established, it can be progressively faded out as the play goes on, until the front row remains to remind us of the rest and then, finally, merely two seats in that row—one of which is now occupied by MOON. Between MOON and the auditorium is an acting area which represents, in as realistic an idiom as possible, the drawing-room of Muldoon Manor. French windows at one side. A telephone fairly well upstage (i.e. towards MOON). The BODY of a man lies sprawled face down on the floor in front of a large settee. This settee must be of a size and design to allow it to be wheeled over the body, hiding it completely. Silence. The room. The BODY. MOON.
MOON stares blankly ahead.
He turns his head to one side then the other, then up, then down—waiting. He picks up his programme and reads the front cover. He turns over the page and reads.
He turns over the page and reads.
He turns over the page and reads.
He turns over the page and reads.
He looks at the back cover and reads.
He puts it down and crosses his legs and looks about. He stares front. Behind him and to one side, barely visible, a man enters and sits down: BIRDBOOT.
Pause, moos picks up his programme, glances at the front cover and puts it down impatiently. Pause. . . . Behind him there is the crackle of a chocolate-box, absurdly loud, MOON looks round. He and BIRDBOOT see each other. They are clearly known to each other. They acknowledge each other with constrained waves, MOON looks straight ahead, BIRDBOOT comes down to join him.
Note: Almost always, MOON and BIRDBOOT converse in tones suitable for an auditorium, sometimes a whisper. However good the acoustics might be, they will have to have microphones where they are sitting. The effect must be not of sound picked up, amplified and flung out at the audience, but of sound picked up, carried and gently dispersed around the auditorium.
Anyway, BIRDBOOT, with a box of Black Magic, makes his way down to join MOON and plumps himself down next to him, plumpish middle-aged BIRDBOOT and younger taller, less-relaxed MOON.
BIRDBOOT (sitting down; conspiratorially): Me and the lads have had a meeting in the bar and decided it’s first-class family entertainment but if it goes on beyond half-past ten it’s self-indulgent—pass it on . . . (and laughs jovially) I’m on my own tonight, don’t mind if I join you?
MOON: Hello, Birdboot.
BIRDBOOT: Where’s Higgs?
MOON: I’m standing in.
MOON AND BIRDBOOT: Where’s Higgs?
MOON: Every time.
MOON: It is as if we only existed one at a time, combining to achieve continuity. I keep space warm for Higgs. My presence defines his absence, his absence confirms my presence, his presence precludes mine. . . . When Higgs and I walk down this aisle together to claim our common seat, the oceans will fall into the sky and the trees will hang with fishes.
BIRDBOOT (he has not been paying attention, looking around vaguely, now catches up): Where’s Higgs?
MOON: The very sight of me with a complimentary ticket is enough. The streets are impassable tonight, the country is rising and the cry goes up from hill to hill—Where—is—Higgs? (Small pause.) Perhaps he’s dead at last, or trapped in a lift somewhere, or succumbed to amnesia, wandering the land with his turn-ups stuffed with ticket-stubs. (BIRDBOOT regards him doubtfully for a moment.)
BIRDBOOT: Yes. . . . Yes, well I didn’t bring Myrtle tonight—not exactly her cup of tea, I thought, tonight.
MOON: Over her head, you mean?
BIRDBOOT: Well, no—I mean it’s a sort of a thriller, isn’t it?
MOON: Is it?
BIRDBOOT: That’s what I heard. Who killed thing?—no one will leave the house.
MOON: I suppose so. Underneath.
BIRDBOOT: Underneath?!? It’s a whodunnit, man!—Look at it! (They look at it. The room. The BODY. Silence.) Has it started yet?
MOON: Yes. (Pause. They look at it.)
BIRDBOOT: Are you sure?
MOON: It’s a pause.
BIRDBOOT: You can’t start with a pause! If you want my opinion there’s total panic back there. (Laughs and subsides.) Where’s Higgs tonight, then?
MOON: It will follow me to the grave and become my epitaph—Here lies Moon the second string: where’s Higgs? . . . Sometimes I dream of revolution, a bloody coup d’etat by the second rank—troupes of actors slaughtered by their understudies, magicians sawn in half by indefatigably smiling glamour girls, cricket teams wiped out by marauding bands of twelfth men—I dream of champions chopped down by rabbit-punching sparring partners while eternal bridesmaids turn and rape the bridegrooms over the sausage rolls and parliamentary private secretaries plant bombs in the Minister’s Humber—comedians die on provincial stages, robbed of their feeds by mutely triumphant stooges—and—march—an army of assistants and deputies, the seconds-in-command, the runners-up, the right-handmen—storming the palace gates wherein the second son has already mounted the throne having committed regicide with a croquet-mallet—stand-ins of the world stand up!— (Beat.) Sometimes I dream of Higgs. (Pause, BIRDBOOT regards him doubtfully. He is at a loss, and grasps reality in the form of his box of chocolates.)
BIRDBOOT (Chewing into mike): Have a chocolate!
MOON: What kind?
BIRDBOOT: (Chewing into mike): Black Magic.
MOON: No thanks. (Chewing stops dead.) (Of such tiny victories and defeats. . .)
BIRDBOOT: I’ll give you a tip, then. Watch the girl.
MOON: You think she did it?
BIRDBOOT: No, no—the girl, watch her.
MOON: What girl?
BIRDBOOT: You won’t know her, I’ll give you a nudge.
MOON: You know her, do you?
BIRDBOOT (suspiciously, bridling): What’s that supposed to mean?
MOON: I beg your pardon?
BIRDBOOT: I’m trying to tip you a wink—give you a nudge as good as a tip—for God’s sake, Moon, what’s the matter with you?—you could do yourself some good, spotting her first time out—she’s new, from the provinces, going straight to the top. I don’t want to put words into your mouth but a word from us and we could make her.
MOON: I suppose you’ve made dozens of them, like that.
BIRDBOOT (instantly outraged): I’ll have you know I’m a family man devoted to my homely but good-natured wife, and if you’re suggesting—
MOON: No, no—
BIRDBOOT: —A man of my scrupulous morality—
MOON: I’m sorry—
BIRDBOOT: —falsely besmirched.
MOON: Is that her? (For MRS. DRUDGE has entered.)
BIRDBOOT: —don’t be absurd, wouldn’t be seen dead with the old—ah. (MRS. DRUDGE is the char, middle-aged, turbanned. She heads straight for the radio, dusting on the trot.)
MOON (reading his programme): Mrs. Drudge the Help.
RADIO (without preamble, having been switched on by MRS. DRUDGE): We interrupt our programme for a special police message. (MRS. DRUDGE stops to listen.) The search still goes on for the escaped madman who is on the run in Essex.
MRS. DRUDGE (fear and dismay): Essex !
RADIO: County police led by Inspector Hound have received a report that the man has been seen in the desolate marshes around Muldoon Manor. (Fearful gasp from MRS. DRUDGE.) The man is wearing a darkish suit with a lightish shirt He is of medium height and build and youngish. Anyone seeing a man answering to this description and acting suspiciously, is advised to phone the nearest police station. (A man answering this description has appeared behind MRS. DRUDGE. He is acting suspiciously. He creeps in. He creeps out. MRS. DRUDGE does not see him. He does not see the body.) That is the end of the police message. (MRS. DRUDGE turns off the radio and resumes her cleaning. She does not see the body. Quite fortuitously; her view of the body is always blocked, and when it isn’t she has her back to it. However, she is dusting and polishing her way towards it.)
BIRDBOOT: So that’s what they say about me, is it?
BIRDBOOT: Oh, I know what goes on behind my back—sniggers—slanders—hole-in-corner innuendo—What have you heard?
BIRDBOOT (urbanely): Tittle tattle. Tittle, my dear fellow, tattle. I take no notice of it—the sly envy of scandal mongers—I can afford to ignore them, I’m a respectable married man—
BIRDBOOT: Water off a duck’s back, I assure you.
MOON: Who was that lady I saw you with last night?
BIRDBOOT (unexpectedly stung into fury): How dare you! (More quietly) How dare you. Don’t you come here with your slimy insinuations! My wife Myrtle understands perfectly well that a man of my critical standing is obliged occasionally to mingle with the world of the footlights, simply by way of keeping au fait with the latest—mingle with the world of the footlights, simply by way of keeping au fait with the latest—
MOON: I’m sorry—
BIRDBOOT: That a critic of my scrupulous integrity should bevilified and pilloried in the stocks of common gossip—
BIRDBOOT: I have nothing to hide!—why, if this should reach theears of my beloved Myrtle—
MOON: Can I have a chocolate?
BIRDBOOT: What? Oh— (Mollified.) Oh yes—my dear fellowyes,let’s have a chocolate—No point in—yes, good show. (Pops chocolate into his mouth and chews.) Which one do you fancy?—Cherry? Strawberry? Coffee cream? Turkish delight?
MOON: I’ll have montelimar. (Chewing stops.)
BIRDBOOT: Ah. Sorry. (Just missed that one.)
MOON: Gooseberry fondue?
MOON: Pistacchio fudge? Nectarine cluster? Hickory nut praline? Chateau Neuf du Pape ’55 cracknell?
BIRDBOOT: I’m afraid not . . . Caramel?
MOON: Yes, all right.
BIRDBOOT: Thanks very much. (He gives MOON a chocolate. Pause.) Incidentally, old chap, I’d be grateful if you didn’t mention—I mean, you know how these misunderstandings get about. . . .
BIRDBOOT: The fact is, Myrtle simply doesn’t like the theatre. . . . (He tails off hopelessly. MRS. DRUDGE, whose discovery of the body has been imminent, now—by way of tidying the room—slides the couch over the corpse, hiding it completely. She resumes dusting and humming.)
MOON: By the way, congratulations, Birdboot.
MOON: At the Theatre Royal. Your entire review reproduced in neon!
BIRDBOOT (pleased): Oh . . . that old thing.
MOON: You’ve seen it, of course.
BIRDBOOT (vaguely): Well, I was passing. . . .
MOON: I definitely intend to take a second look when it has settled down.
BIRDBOOT: As a matter of fact I have a few colour transparencies—I don’t know whether you’d care to . . .?
MOON: Please, please—love to, love to. . . . (BIRDBOOT hands over a few colour slides and a battery-powered viewer which MOON holds up to his eyes as he speaks.) Yes . . . yes . . . lovely . . . awfully sound. It has scale, it has colour, it is, in the best sense of the word, electric. Large as it is, it is a small masterpiece—I would go so far as to say—kinetic without being pop, and having said that I think it must be said that here we have a review that adds a new dimension to the critical scene. I urge you to make haste to the Theatre Royal, for this is the stuff of life itself. (Handing back the slides, morosely): All I ever got was “Unforgettable” on the posters for . . . What was it?
BIRDBOOT: Oh—yes—I know. . . . Was that you? I thought it was Higgs. (The phone rings. MRS. DRUDGE seems to have been waiting for it to do so and for the last few seconds has been dusting it with an intense concentration. She snatches it up.)
MRS. DRUDGE (into phone): Hello, the drawing-room of Lady Muldoon’s country residence one morning in early spring? . . . Hello!—the draw—Who? Who did you wish to speak to? I’m afraid there is no one of that name here, this is all very mysterious and I’m sure it’s leading up to something, I hope nothing is amiss for we, that is Lady Muldoon and her houseguests, are here cut off from the world, including Magnus, the wheelchair-ridden half-brother of her ladyship’s husband Lord Albert Muldoon who ten years ago went out for a walk on the cliffs and was never seen again—and all alone, for they had no children.
MOON: Derivative, of course.
BIRDBOOT: But quite sound.
MRS. DRUDGE: Should a stranger enter our midst, which I very much doubt, I will tell him you called. Good-bye. (She puts down the phone and catches sight of the previously seen suspicious character who has now entered again, more suspiciously than ever, through the french windows. He senses her stare, freezes, and straightens up.)
SIMON: Ah!—hello there! I’m Simon Gascoyne, I hope you don’t mind, the door was open so I wandered in. I’m a friend of Lady Muldoon, the lady of the house, having made her acquaintance through a mutual friend, Felicity Cunningham, shortly after moving into this neighbourhood just the other day.
MRS. DRUDGE: I’m Mrs. Drudge. I don’t live in but I pop in on my bicycle when the weather allows to help in the running of charming though somewhat isolated Muldoon Manor. Judging by the time (she glances at the clock) you did well to get here before high water cut us off for all practical purposes from the outside world.
SIMON: I took the short cut over the cliffs and followed one of the old smugglers’ paths through the treacherous swamps that surround this strangely inaccessible house.
MRS. DRUDGE: Yes, many visitors have remarked on the topographical quirk in the local strata whereby there are no roads leading from the Manor, though there are ways of getting to it, weather allowing.
SIMON: Yes, well I must say it’s a lovely day so far.
MRS. DRUDGE: Ah, but now that the cuckoo-beard is in budthere’ll be fog before the sun hits Foster’s Ridge.
SIMON: I say, it’s wonderful how you country people really know weather.
MRS. DRUDGE (suspiciously): Know whether what?
SIMON (glancing out of the window): Yes, it does seem to be coming on a bit foggy.
MRS. DRUDGE: The fog is very treacherous around here—it rolls off the sea without warning, shrouding the cliffs in a deadly mantle of blind man’s buff.
SIMON: Yes, I’ve heard it said.
MRS. DRUDGE: I’ve known whole week-ends when Muldoon Manor, as this lovely old Queen Anne House is called, might as well have been floating on the pack ice for all the good it would have done phoning the police. It was on such a week-end as this that Lord Muldoon who had lately brought his beautiful bride back to the home of his ancestors, walked out of this house ten years ago, and his body was never found.
SIMON: Yes, indeed, poor Cynthia.
MRS. DRUDGE: His name was Albert
SIMON: Yes indeed, poor Albert. But tell me, is Lady Muldoon about?
MRS. DRUDGE: I believe she is playing tennis on the lawn with Felicity Cunningham.
SIMON (startled) . . . Felicity Cunningham?
MRS. DRUDGE: A mutual friend, I believe you said. A happychance. I will tell them you are here.
SIMON: Well, I can’t really stay as a matter of fact—please don’t disturb them—I really should be off.
MRS. DRUDGE: They would be very disappointed. It is some time since we have had a four for pontoon bridge at the Manor, and I don’t play cards myself.
SIMON: There is another guest, then?
MRS. DRUDGE: Major Magnus, the crippled half-brother of Lord Muldoon who turned up out of the blue from Canada just the other day, completes the house-party. (MRS. DRUDGE leaves on this, SIMON is undecided.)
MOON (ruminating quietly): I think I must be waiting for Higgs to die.
MOON: Half afraid that I will vanish when he does. (The phone rings, SIMON picks it up.)
MOON: I wonder if it’s the same for Puckeridge?
BIRDBOOT AND SIMON (together): Who?
MOON: Third string.
BIRDBOOT: Your stand-in?
MOON: Does he wait for Higgs and I to write each other’s obituary—does he dream—?
SIMON: To whom did you wish to speak?
BIRDBOOT: What’s he like?
SIMON: There is no one of that name here.
BIRDBOOT: No—as a critic, what’s Puckeridge like as a critic?
MOON (laughs poisonously): Nobody knows—
SIMON: You must have got the wrong number!
MOON: —there’s always been me and Higgs. (SIMON replaces the phone and paces nervously. Pause. BIRDBOOT consults his programme.)
BIRDBOOT: Simon Gascoyne. It’s not him, of course.
BIRDBOOT: I said it’s not him.
MOON: Who is it, then?
BIRDBOOT: My guess is Magnus.
MOON: In disguise, you mean?
MOON: You think he’s Magnus in disguise?
BIRDBOOT: I don’t think you’re concentrating, Moon.
MOON: I thought you said—
BIRDBOOT: You keep chattering on about Higgs and Puckeridge—what’s the matter with you?
MOON (thoughtfully): I wonder if they talk about me . . .? (A strange impulse makes SIMON turn on the radio.)
RADIO: Here is another police message. Essex county police are still searching in vain for the madman who is at large in the deadly marshes of the coastal region. Inspector Hound who is masterminding the operation, is not available for comment but it is widely believed that he has a secret plan. . . . Meanwhile police and volunteers are combing the swamps with loud-hailers, shouting, “Don’t be a madman, give yourself up.” That is the end of the police message. (SIMON turns off the radio. He is clearly nervous, MOON and BIRDBOOT are on separate tracks.)
BIRDBOOT (knowingly): Oh yes. . . .
MOON: Yes, I should think my name is seldom off Puckeridge’s lips . . . sad, really. I mean, it’s no life at all, a stand-in’s stand-in.
BIRDBOOT: Yes . . . yes. . . .
MOON: Higgs never gives me a second thought. I can tell by the way he nods.
BIRDBOOT: Revenge, of course.
MOON: Nonsense—there’s nothing personal in it—
BIRDBOOT: The paranoid grudge—
MOON (sharply first, then starting to career . . .): It is merely that it is not enough to wax at another’s wane, to be held in reserve, to be on hand, on call, to step in or not at all, the substitute—the near offer—the temporary-acting—for I am Moon, continuous Moon, in my own shoes, Moon in June, April, September and no member of the human race keeps warm my bit of space—yes, I can tell by the way he nods.
BIRDBOOT: Quite mad, of course.
BIRDBOOT: The answer lies out there in the swamps.
BIRDBOOT: The skeleton in the cupboard is coming home to roost
MOON: Oh yes. (He clears his throat . . . for both he and BIRDBOOT have a “public” voice, a critic voice which they turn on for sustained pronouncements of opinion.) Already in the opening stages we note the classic impact of the catalystic figure—the outsider—plunging through to the centre of an ordered world and setting up the disruptions—the shock waves—which unless I am much mistaken, will strip these comfortable people—these crustaceans in the rock pool of society—strip them of their shells and leave them exposed as the trembling raw meat which, at heart, is all of us. But there is more to it than that—
BIRDBOOT: I agree—keep your eye on Magnus. (A tennis ball bounces through the french windows, closely followed by FELICITY, who is in her 20’s. She wears a pretty tennis outfit, and carries a racket.)
FELICITY (calling behind her): Out! (It takes her a moment to notice SIMON who is standing shiftily to one side, MOON is stirred by a memory.)
MOON: I say, Birdboot. . . .
BIRDBOOT: That’s the one.
FELICITY (catching sight of SIMON): You! (FELICITY’s manner at the moment is one of great surprise but some pleasure.)
SIMON (nervously): Er, yes—hello again.
FELICITY: What are you doing here?
SIMON: Well, I. . . .
BIRDBOOT: Sssh. . . .
SIMON: No doubt you’re surprised to see me.
FELICITY: Honestly, darling, you really are extraordinary.
SIMON: Yes, well, here I am.
FELICITY: You must have been desperate to see me—I mean, I’m flattered, but couldn’t it wait till I got back?
SIMON (bravely): There is something you don’t know.
FELICITY: What is it?
SIMON: Look, about the things I said—it may be that I got carried away a little—we both did—
FELICITY (stiffly): What are you trying to say?
SIMON: I love another!
FELICITY: I see.
SIMON: I didn’t make any promises—I merely—
FELICITY: You don’t have to say any more—
SIMON: Oh, I didn’t want to hurt you—
FELICITY: Of all the nerve!
SIMON: Well, I—
FELICITY: You philandering coward—
SIMON: Let me explain—
FELICITY: This is hardly the time and place—you think you can barge in anywhere, whatever I happen to be doing—
SIMON: But I want you to know that my admiration for you is sincere—I don’t want you to think that I didn’t mean those things I said—
FELICITY: I’ll kill you for this, Simon Gascoyne! (She leaves in tears, passing MRS. DRUDGE who has entered in time to overhear her last remark.)
MOON: It was her.
BIRDBOOT: I told you—straight to the top—
MOON: No, no—
BIRDBOOT: Sssh. . . .
SIMON (to MRS. DRUDGE): Yes, what is it?
MRS. DRUDGE: I have come to set up the card table, sir.
SIMON: I don’t think I can stay.
MRS. DRUDGE: Oh, Lady Muldoon will be disappointed.
SIMON: Does she know I’m here?
MRS. DRUDGE: Oh yes, sir, I just told her and it put her in quite a tizzy.
SIMON: Really? . . . Well, I suppose now that I’ve cleared the air . . . Quite a tizzy, you say . . . really . . . really . . . (He and MRS. DRUDGE start setting up for card game. MRS. DRUDGE leaves when this is done.)
MOON: Felicity!—she’s the one.
BIRDBOOT: Nonsense—red herring.
MOON: I mean, it was her!
BIRDBOOT (exasperated): What was?
MOON: That lady I saw you with last night!
BIRDBOOT (inhales with fury): Are you suggesting that a man of my scrupulous integrity would trade his pen for a mess of potage?! Simply because in the course of my profession I happen to have struck up an acquaintance—to have, that is, a warm regard, if you like, for a fellow toiler in the vineyard of greasepaint—I find it simply intolerable to bepillified and villoried—
MOON: I never implied—
BIRDBOOT: —to find myself the object of uninformed malice, the petty slanders of little men—
MOON: I’m sorry—
BIRDBOOT: —to suggest that my good opinion in a journal of unimpeachable integrity is at the disposal of the first coquette who gives me what I want—
BIRDBOOT: A ladies’ man! . . . Why, Myrtle and I have been together now for—Christ!—who’s that?