Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Stendhal Syndrome

Two Plays: Full Frontal Nudity and Prelude & Liebestod

by Terrence McNally

“In the opener, a trio of tourists . . . contemplate Michelangelo’s David in hilarious Restoration comedy-like asides as they are overcome by the statue’s, uh, size and power. . . . In the second play, a philandering super conductor is driven to a, well, unexpected climax by Wagner. The audiences are . . . so enraptured with the artist’s work that they become literal art lovers.” –John Istel, Elle

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 80
  • Publication Date November 09, 2004
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4150-7
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.00

About The Book

Two new and remarkable plays by Terrence McNally, whom The New Yorker has called “one of our most original and audacious dramatists and one of our funniest”

The Stendhal Syndrome
is named for the French novelist, who on a visit to Florence had such a visceral and physical reaction to its beauty that he wrote, “I felt a pulsating in my heart. Life was draining out of me, while I walked fearing a fall.” Now Terrence McNally, whom the New Yorker has called “one of our most original and audacious dramatists and one of our funniest,” has crafted two stunning and witty plays about art and how it transforms us. Full Frontal Nudity explores the reaction of three American tourists to the perfection and beauty of Michelangelo’s David. In Prelude and Liebstod, a renowned conductor watches his life unravel while conducting Wagner’s musical masterpiece. With its world premiere in the winter of 2004 starring Frank Langella and Isabella Rossellini, The Stendhal Syndrome will join the ranks of important plays by this American master.


“Terrifically enjoyable.” –Ben Brantley, The New York Times

“Conveys unsettling but genuine exhilaration.” –John Lahr, The New Yorker

‘spectacular . . . Tough, outrageous comic bliss.” –Linda Winer, Newsday

“In the opener, a trio of tourists . . . contemplate Michelangelo’s David in hilarious Restoration comedy-like asides as they are overcome by the statue’s, uh, size and power. . . . In the second play, a philandering super conductor is driven to a, well, unexpected climax by Wagner. The audiences are . . . so enraptured with the artist’s work that they become literal art lovers.” –John Istel, Elle



Time: The present.

Place: Florence, Italy, the Accademia Gallery, where Michelangelo’s David is on display.

Lights up.

We are in the Accademia Gallery in Florence.

At first we hear the sounds of a crowded gallery. French, Italian, German, Japanese–all are being spoken.

The voices fade as the lights come up on four people, two men and two women.

They stand facing us. They are looking at Michelangelo’s David, which is projected on a screen behind them. There is an appropriate moment of awed silence.

BIMBI, the tour guide, is first to speak.

BIMBI Ecco, the David. I don’t think I have to say anything, do you? What would be the point? Words would only diminish this experience. I’ll just let you take it in. Are you astonished? Are you even breathing still? Listen to your heart, not me.

Imagine you’re alone with him.

HECTOR (All your life you dream of this moment and then it’s here and part of you thinks you could die from it and part of you thinks, So what? There should be two of us standing here.)

BIMBI Coming here every day, sometimes twice, six days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, and it takes my breath away every time!

LANA (I get what’s going on here: male pornography. Objectifying the male of the species for a change. I love it. Show us everything you’ve got, honey. Hot stuff, yeah! Oh God, there go my nipples.)

BIMBI Che bello, eh? Che perfezzione! Che meraviglia!

LEO (I don’t see what the big deal is. I’ve got a bigger dick. I mean, proportionately bigger. If I were his size, mine would be bigger. Well maybe not bigger but certainly as big. That’s a load off my mind. I was expecting this guy to totally wipe me out in that department.)

BIMBI (to LEO) A penny for your thoughts, signore.

LEO He’s got weird pubic hair. It’s in big wavy clumps, like maybe somebody gave him a perm down there. Real pubic hair isn’t like that.

BIMBI Let’s return to our silent contemplation, shall we? (The worst part of my job is asking people what they think because then I have to listen to what they think.)

LEO (What did I say? You gonna tell me I’m the only person looking at his dick? What else am I supposed to look at?)

BIMBI Let the divine genius of Michelangelo take you to another plane. One of silent contemplation, ecstasy even.

LANA Excuse me, but what time–

BIMBI Don’t speak yet, signora. Take it in. Look, feel. Then ask questions.

LANA (I was just going to ask when lunch was. What a bitch.)

LEO (She caught your eye again. Maybe she wants me. That’s why women take these trips. To get some culture and to score. Hell, that’s the reason men take these trips. Go for it, man.)

BIMBI Just look at the head alone. The detail. The line. Already I’m saying too much, signora.

We see a close-up of the head. As we continue we will see close-ups of specific features: the eyes, the nose, the lips, etc.

LANA It’s signorina.

BIMBI Ah, signorina. I couldn’t tell, Miss Turner.

LANA And I’m afraid it’s not Turner, either. It’s Maxwell. Signorina Lana Maxwell. Not every Lana is a Turner and not every Turner is a Lana. Sometimes we’re just a Maxwell.

BIMBI Again, my apologies.

LANA That’s all right. I get Turner a lot from older people. And you are?

BIMBI Bimbi.

LANA Bimbi?

BIMBI Just Bimbi.

LANA Oh, like bimbo, only it’s Bimbi. I don’t know what my mother was thinking when she named me. Of course, most people my age don’t even know who Lana Turner is or was. I’m sure she’s dead by now.

BIMBI She died at least ten years ago.

LANA She must have been a hundred. What happened?

BIMBI I don’t know. Cancer, old age, cirrhosis of the liver–the way we all go if we’re not lucky.

LEO (seeing his opportunity) No, no, no, no, no. She was murdered by her lover. He was this small-time Italian Mafia thug. He cut her throat and got blood all over this big white rug she had in her bedroom. The Lifetime Channel did a whole big thing on it.

LANA You’ve got it all wrong. She murdered her lover and her daughter, Cherry Something Crane, took the rap for her and served time in prison and then worked as a restaurant hostess when she got out, but now she’s a lesbian and lives in Palm Springs with her girlfriend and they raise dogs. Dachshunds, I think, but definitely some kind of dogs.

LEO At least I got the bedroom and the white rug and the gangster right.

HECTOR (I shall go mad if this keeps up.)

LANA Some people think the lover had been having an affair with the daughter, which is why Lana killed him.

BIMBI This would have been before the daughter was a lesbian, of course.

LANA Maybe it was the reason she turned lesbian. Or maybe it was in prison she turned.

LEO That can happen. Same with guys. Keeps me on the straight and narrow. End up some black dude’s prison bitch, no way!

HECTOR (I am going mad with these people.)

BIMBI He was having an affair with the daughter.

LANA That’s never been proven.

BIMBI Of course he was. He was an Italian. If he’d been having an affair with the mother, there was no motivation. In Italy, if you sleep with the daughter, you’re going to be murdered by the mother.

LANA This was in Beverly Hills.

BIMBI Even in Beverly Hills.

HECTOR (No, I have gone mad!) Could we please concentrate on the sublime work of art in front of us and stop this inane conversation about Hollywood? We’re in Florence, for Christ’s sake. You’re the tour guide. Can’t you control these people? Thank you.

BIMBI I tell people what they’re looking at, signore, not what to say.

HECTOR Then tell us something–anything to shut that woman up.

LEO Hey! That’s no way to talk to a lady.

BIMBI The signore has a point. Perhaps we have strayed too far from the David.

HECTOR Thank you. Grazie.

LEO (I bet that guy’s gay. That type usually is. What is it about me that attracts them?)

BIMBI Now, do we all know who David was?

LEO You means he’s not just a statue called David?

LANA I think she means in real life.

BIMBI David was an Old Testament hero who defeated the giant, Goliath, and so saved his people from the Philistines.

LEO I’ve heard of them. They’ve got a great basketball team. The Pittsburgh Philistines. Hi.


LEO That was a joke.

LANA I know.

BIMBI Michelangelo shows David as an athletic youth, completely naked.

LEO (for Lana’s benefit) We’re paying her good money to tell us he’s butt naked?

LANA Sshh! Don’t. I’ll get the giggles.

BIMBI Notice with what quiet concentration he turns his head to his left, directing his self-confident gaze toward his approaching opponent.

LEO Yeah, she’s right. See that? His head is turned.

BIMBI Only his furrowed brow reveals the fierce concentration with which he regards the approaching enemy.

LEO See the furrow? This is cool.

BIMBI For the Florentines, the unveiling of the statue in the heart of the Piazza della Signoria must have been a sensation.

LEO I’ll bet it was. People must have shit themselves. (Don’t give me that look, Liberace.) (to Lana) You have dinner plans?

LANA We’re on a tour. You don’t make dinner plans on a tour. You eat with the tour. Haven’t you ever traveled before?

LEO Not with you.

BIMBI Moreover, this naked “giant” was a completely nontraditional rendering of a traditional Renaissance subject. Where was his armor? His sword? Where was his shield?

LEO Going into battle with your willy exposed! Now that’s what I call feeling vulnerable!

LANA Stop, I said.

BIMBI In contrast to traditional portrayals of the historical David, Michelangelo’s capalavoro is to be understood not as a symbol of victory and might but as an embodiment of youthful strength and self-confidence.

HECTOR And masculine beauty.

LEO (Go on, tell us you’re not gay, darling.)

LANA What’s a capo-something?

LEO Hunh? I wasn’t listening.

BIMBI Michelangelo began the David in 1501. It took him four years to complete.

LANA Four years! I couldn’t do something like that in four centuries!

LEO I don’t think that’s the point. People like us aren’t supposed to do anything like that ever.

BIMBI The David was originally intended for placement high above the spectator. Hence the exaggerated size of the head. When the city fathers decided to place the David in the Piazza della Signoria, Michelangelo had to rework the back so the statue could be viewed from all sides. Two dimensions becoming three.

LANA Do you know what’s she talking about?

LEO She lost me back at the Ponte Vecchio. (She definitely wants me.)

LANA (Why do I feel like he’s coming on to me? I thought he was gay.)

BIMBI The block of marble had already been partly worked by others and as a result there were severe restrictions on what Michelangelo could do with it.

HECTOR I didn’t know that–about the marble being previously worked.

BIMBI However, these limitations did not prevent Michelangelo from depicting David contraposto–a pose in which the body’s weight rests on one leg, the shoulders being at an angle to the hips, a posture that lends a figure animation.

HECTOR I see, I see.

BIMBI Try it yourself.

Hector shifts his weight to one leg.

HECTOR This is very informative. Thank you.

BIMBI I think I sound like a textbook.

HECTOR Not at all. Your delivery is very spontaneous and charming.

BIMBI Actually, they make us memorize all that in five languages.

HECTOR If the other four are as good as your English . . .

BIMBI You don’t want to catch me when I’m leading a group of Japanese tourists. The other day I told them to pay especial attention to the Virgin Mary’s liver.

Bimbi and Hector share a laugh.

LEO (What is it with women and gay men? Why do they like them? I don’t get it.)

BIMBI David originally stood outside the Palazzo Vecchio, the site of the city’s government, but was moved indoors to its present location in 1873. Does anyone have an idea why it was moved?

LANA Don’t look at me.

LEO I’ll take a shot.

HECTOR (This should be good.)

LEO There were too many automobile accidents. You’re driving along, minding your own business, when all of a sudden you see this big naked guy in the middle of the road. A sight like that, you could lose complete control of your vehicle. At least I would and I’m straight. Can you imagine some gay guy seeing that for the first time?

BIMBI What’s your point?

LEO Traffic in this country is bad enough without some guy’s wiener looming over your dashboard. Imagine if you were a lady driver–and I’m not making women drivers jokes!–and there you are in your little Fiat 300. Your husband hasn’t given it to you in months, you’re coming home from a soccer match, all those hot sweaty men, and you see that thing straight ahead of you. You’re gonna look where you’re driving? I don’t think so. More blood and gore on the autostrada! Or a young girl. Dig this: She’s a virgin, out for her very first drive. Why she hardly knows where the fucking brake is–pardon my language but I’m getting very emotional–when she gets a load of our friend here. She’s never seen a naked man. Put yourself in her place. D.O.A. The poor kid never had a chance.

BIMBI I’m speechless, Mr.–

LEO Sampson. Leo Sampson. Sampson’s the name and mighty is the frame.

HECTOR (This man could potentially murder us all.)

BIMBI Unfortunately, your Mr. Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile until considerably after the David had been moved indoors.

LEO All right, so he was frightening the horses. I mean, you know, this old-time sixteenth-century horse is minding his business, clopping along, clop-clop-clop, he–or she! We all know the P.C. drill–our Renaissance imaginary herma­ph­-ro­dite horse comes around a corner and finds him/her/itself face-to-face with our naked friend and his uncircumcised dick here! What would you do if you were a horse?

BIMBI I don’t know.

LEO You’d bolt, lady. You’d rear up on your hind legs and throw your rider to his death, a broken neck. This goes on for a century or two until the town fathers in all their Renaissance wisdom say, “We better haul this sucker indoors before more innocent Florentines are killed by the sight of this guy’s johnson.” That’s black American slang for “penis.”

BIMBI Thank you.

LEO What do you say, teach? Do I go to the head of the class?

BIMBI You have a vivid imagination, Mr. Sampson.

LEO Thank you.

HECTOR It wasn’t a compliment. The David was moved indoors because of the ravages of the elements. Snow, ice, wind, rain.

LANA You mean, like acid rain?


LEO Blow it out your ass: acid rain! They didn’t have acid rain in the nineteenth century any more than they had cars.

HECTOR They had the equivalent of acid rain.

LEO That’s my point: Horses were the equivalent of cars.

HECTOR Maybe, just maybe, horses were the precursor of the automobile, but by no stretch of the imagination or semantics can they be called the equivalent.

LEO I’m not going to get into little word games with you.

HECTOR Good, you’d lose!

LEO I rest my case.

HECTOR What case? You have no case. You have proposed something as idiotic as it is wrong.

LEO I am definitely being insulted by this asshole.

HECTOR ‘sampson is the name and mighty is the frame.”

LEO These intellectuals! They’ll do it to you every time: look down their noses at you. “Ineffectuals’ is what I call “em. All bark, no bite. They don’t even bark. It’s just talk.

HECTOR I had your number the moment we left the hotel.

LEO I’m frightened. What number would that be?

HECTOR When you took the front seat in the minivan without even asking.

LEO I always sit in the front.

HECTOR A gentleman would have asked, “Would anyone care for the front seat?” before just appropriating it for himself. You plopped yourself right in, as if we were invisible.

LEO I didn’t plop anywhere. I saw the seat was empty, I
took it.

HECTOR You plopped.

LEO I did not plop. What are you laughing at?

LANA Grown men behaving like children.

LEO He started it.

LANA He did not.

LEO He did, too.

LANA He did not.

LEO He did, too.

LANA He did not!

HECTOR Aaaarrgh!!!

BIMBI I think we’re upsetting the gentleman. What’s wrong, signore?

HECTOR What’s wrong? What’s wrong? Bell”Italia Tours has a lot to answer for. ‘see Italy and die,” your ad said. No, it should read, ‘see Italy with those two and drop dead while you’re actually there.”

BIMBI Let me deal with them.

LEO Now we’ve both been insulted.

BIMBI Mr. Charlotte is a professor of English who’s taken early retirement.

LEO That’s no excuse.

BIMBI You don’t understand. His wife died recently after a long illness. His son was killed in a car accident on their way to the funeral.

LANA Oh my God. That’s terrible.

BIMBI Mr. Charlotte was driving. The driver of the other car was drunk.

LEO Why didn’t you tell us? I feel about this big now.

BIMBI So I think we all have to bear in mind such suffering when we consider what a pain in the ass he is.

LEO I am so, so sorry about your loss, man.

HECTOR Thank you.

LEO I had no idea. I take back everything I said. One thing about me, I don’t hold a grudge. Put it there. (They shake hands.) I’m going to say a prayer for the two of them at the next church we visit. Your wife and your son. And you, too. Hell, I’ll say a prayer for all of us.

HECTOR Thank you.

LEO I’m not as bad as I seem.

HECTOR Most people aren’t.

LANA You speak such wonderful English for an Italian.

BIMBI I’m not an Italian. My father was Albanian, my mother was Greek. I was born in the Philippines but I grew up in Perth. My first husband, Svet, was Swedish. After we got married, we emigrated to Norway, where we were living in Ulberg (Ulberg is about seventy kilometers from Oslo; it’s famous for its luggage factory), which is where and when I met my present husband, Gian Carlo Noni, a well-known and much respected journalist with Il Messagero, one of our daily newspapers. I left Svet and Norway for Gian Carlo and Italy, and we’ve lived qui, here in Firenze, ever since.

LANA Qui?Qui” means “here”?

BIMBI Brava!

LANA It was just a guess. But I love speaking Italian. It seems so easy. But I guess it does get harder if you want to get really good at it?

BIMBI I’m afraid so. I’m still struggling with the past perfect subjunctive.

LANA Everything gets harder if you really want to be good at it. Start with marriage.

BIMBI I’m sorry.

LANA Maybe I should have gone to that Ulberg instead of Italy.

BIMBI There’s no right place to look for love, signorina, but as your American songs says: many, many wrong ones. (to Hector) You seem lost in a dream, Mr. Charlotte.

HECTOR I’ve waited a lifetime for this.

BIMBI It looks like our friend is having an ecstatic experience.

HECTOR I’m sorry.

BIMBI Nonsense. It’s what we’ve all come here for.

HECTOR I thought I’d seen the David before–in pictures and reproductions–but I realize I hadn’t really seen him at all.


LEO Maybe we both should have gone to that Ulberg.

LANA I’d come home with a new suitcase and frostbite.

LEO Me, too.

LANA At least in Italy you’re warm. And I just bought a new suitcase for this trip.

LEO You’re divorced?

LANA Legally separated, whatever that means.

LEO It means you’re still married but not responsible for each other financially or for any legal documents you might sign. I speak from bitter experience. Yours was a bastard and mine was a bitch. They didn’t deserve us.

LANA (bursting into tears) Now look what you’ve made me do. I haven’t done that since I got off the plane.

LEO I’m sorry. When I like someone: I try to get a little smile out of them. It seems we’re in the same boat.

LANA For a nice man, you’re not very sensitive, Mr. Salmon.

LEO It’s Sampson, like the Biblical hero. You know, Sampson and Delilah. Hear the p? Not Salmon, like the fish.

LANA Oh, I wondered! ‘salmon’s the name and mighty is the frame.” I mean, how mighty can a fish’s frame be?

LEO Maybe he wasn’t a bastard, but he sure was a fool.

LANA Lex always said it took two to tango.

LEO Who’s Lex?

LANA My first husband. Don’t ask.

LEO I hope you told him it only takes one to screw up a marriage. So you think I’m nice?

LANA Why? Are you trying to tell me you’re not?

LEO No, no. I’m not used to women thinking I’m nice. I’m used to them thinking I’m a jerk. Don’t stop, I like it, I like it.

BIMBI A lira for your thoughts, Signor Charlotte.

HECTOR I could stand here forever and still not truly see it.

BIMBI Sometimes I think we never really do.

HECTOR I’m feeling completely humbled, just being in its presence.

BIMBI As well you should, as well we all should.

HECTOR It’s perfect, it’s sublime.

LEO Can I clear something up? You said ‘my first husband”?

LANA Well I certainly hope I’m not going to be single again the rest of my life. I like to think I still have my whole life ahead of me. Why do you think I’m taking this trip?

LEO Me too, Lana; me too.

LANA When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

LEO We’re in Florence.

LANA I was hoping you weren’t going to say that. (Men are so dumb. Women are dumb, too, but not like that.) I need an Orangina.

BIMBI I’m afraid they don’t sell refreshments in the gallery.

LANA I don’t know about anyone else but I think I’ve seen the David.

BIMBI Are you sure? You may never pass this way again. Look again. Look hard, look deep, look long. That goes for you, too, Leo.

LEO What am I looking for?

BIMBI Beauty, a moment of truth, knowledge. Who knows? We might even see ourselves. Art is powerful.

Leo folds his arms and looks hard and long.

LEO See me in him, huh? We’re both Italian. We’re men. We know how to stare down the enemy. But somehow I don’t see him selling Toyotas in Pittsburgh.

BIMBI Standing here in the Accademia, humbled by the presence of such a mighty achievement of human endeavor, who is not reminded of loss? How far we have fallen from what we might have been.

LEO Show me someone who hasn’t suffered loss and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t really lived. Someone who is . . . Help me, Lana, what’s the word I want?

LANA Incomplete?

LEO That’s the word. Incomplete. We all suffer. It’s when we hide our wounds from one another that we get into trouble.

LANA That is so, so true.

HECTOR (We’ve gone from the National Enquirer straight to The Oprah Winfrey Show!)

BIMBI (I’ve got a bunch of Germans after lunch. Does anybody actually like the Germans?)

LEO (She’s cooling on me, I can tell. I did something wrong. Shit! What was it?)

BIMBI Does anybody know the German for “I’m sorry, I couldn’t get any vegetarian dinners’?

LANA “Heil Hitler” is the only German I speak.

BIMBI Watch what you say, Miss Maxwell.

LANA I’m not a Nazi. I just love to watch old war movies. That’s where I got “Heil Hitler” from. But I’m not a Nazi. I’m not even a Republican. I don’t know what I am. I have a question.

HECTOR (I tremble to hear it. All Florence trembles. All Europe.)

LEO (He’s gonna start with her again!)

BIMBI I hope I can answer it.

LANA How old was David when he posed for Michelangelo?

HECTOR (It’s the end of Western civilization as we know it!)

LEO (Jesus, even I know better than that.)

BIMBI What do you think?

LANA He looks young. He could be eighteen, twenty, but he could be in his thirties, too. He could be anything but old. I mean, he’s not saggy anywhere, the way men get.

BIMBI That’s a very good answer.

HECTOR Wait a minute! Wait a minute! What are you telling her? This is a statue of David from the Bible, the Old Testament. He was dead a couple of thousand years at least before Michelangelo was even born.

LANA How could he pose for him if he were dead?

HECTOR He didn’t pose for him, you nincompoop.

BIMBI The Old Testament David was a real person. Michelangelo’s David is an idealization, a memory, a dream of him.

LANA You mean he just made his David up? This guy in the sculpture never existed? Michelangelo just dreamed him? Now I’m really impressed. I thought–You don’t want to know what I thought.

HECTOR (We’re all ears.)

LANA I thought there was this really gorgeous guy running around Renaissance Italy and his name was David Something-or-other and Michelangelo put him in a big vat of plaster and made a mold of him and then broke the mold off before he suffocated and then Michelangelo poured molten marble into the mold and then blew it up to larger than life size and that’s how we got this incredible statue. The real David, the guy in the mold, got married, had kids, got fat eating too much pizza and died. But he lives forever in the beauty and joy of youth in this statue.

BIMBI Except for the part about the mold, you pretty much put your finger on it.

LANA I wish I could.

BIMBI What do you mean?

LANA I have this urge to touch him. Run my fingers all over him.

BIMBI We all do.

LEO Speak for yourself, ladies. I don’t want to touch some strange guy’s butt. Hell, I don’t even want to touch some guy-I-know’s butt.

BIMBI There used to be a lifeguard with legs like that at the beach in Rimini. We all wanted to run our fingers along his beautiful, beautiful legs.

LANA An Italian lifeguard! That sounds funny. You don’t think of Italians as having lifeguards.

BIMBI Why not?

LANA You seem so alive, so unafraid of death.

BIMBI We’re not, Miss Maxwell.

LANA So did you do it? Run your fingers along his beautiful, beautiful legs?

BIMBI No, I lusted in silence.

LANA Look but don’t touch. That’s the story of most of our lives.

BIMBI After a while they had to let Giorgio go. That was his name, Giorgio. Too many young girls were pretending to drown, and then, when one young signorina actually succeeded, it was “Ciao, Giorgio.”

LANA You never?

BIMBI I never even spoke to him.

LANA What a sad story.

BIMBI I suppose it is, but that was another lifetime ago.

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura

Che la diritta via era smarrita.”

HECTOR What was that?

BIMBI Dante. You have Shakespeare, we have Dante. I don’t know why that came into my head.

HECTOR Will you translate it for us?

BIMBI It’s not the same in English.


BIMBI “In the middle of our life, I found I was on the wrong way in a dark wood.” No, the wrong path. In other words, I’d lost my way. That’s terrible, I’m sorry. All the poetry is gone. I’m sorry, Dante, Mi scusi.

HECTOR That’s all right, I think we got the jist of it.

BIMBI I was alone here in the gallery one night. Alone with David. The guards, they all know me, they knew I wasn’t going to take an ax to him like that maniac did to the Piet” in St. Peter’s in Rome.

I stood looking up at him, my mouth was probably agape, being alone with such monstrous beauty. I wanted to touch him so badly. If he weren’t placed so high above me I don’t know where I would have put my hand. On his thighs probably. I stood like this, my arm raised toward him–helplessly, of course, many meters from his flesh–all right, his marble, but is there one of us who doesn’t believe it’s his flesh as well? I looked over my shoulder to make sure I was alone. I was! No one! If I could find a way to climb up onto his pedestal . . . but I couldn’t move. My body was paralyzed. Suddenly I didn’t want to touch him. I was glad I couldn’t. It would have been a sacrilege, a profanation.

LEO I can understand that.

LANA I don’t. That’s a story you could have dined out on the rest of your life.

LEO It’s a work of art. She didn’t want to defile it.

LANA If it’s really a work of art, you can’t defile it. It’s greater than the sum of its parts.

HECTOR (That’s the first intelligent thing she’s said all day. There’s hope for her.) I have no desire to touch him. It would limit my experience of him to the feel of cool, inanimate marble against my hand. From here, he’s alive. I can see the veins in his forearm pulsing, surging with the hot blood of youth, eager to do battle. If I touch him, he’s just a piece of stone.

LEO I see your point, too. That’s one of my troubles: I see everyone’s point and I end up not having one of my own.

LANA I want to hear the end of your story. So, you’re standing there, your arm frozen, ready to touch him.

BIMBI I fainted.

LANA You fainted?

BIMBI When I fell, I hit my head on the base there. There was a cut on my scalp, some blood, a few stitches. I still have a little scar.

LEO What made you faint?

BIMBI The Stendhal Syndrome.

LANA The what?

BIMBI It’s called the Stendhal Syndrome. Are you familiar with it?

LEO It sounds like a movie. Bruce Willis in the Stendhal Syndrome.

BIMBI When the great French writer Marie-Henri Beyle–better known as Stendhal, of course–

HECTOR The Red and the Black.

BIMBI He visited the churches and museums of Florence, the very ones we will visit today, and he observed that some people, usually women, but not always, became over-stimulated by certain works of art–a Botticelli Venus, for example, or a Raffaello youth. These people became light-headed, giddy; some even fainted. This emotional/physical response to art we now call the Stendhal syndrome–when art speaks to something deeper in us than perhaps we understand. It can be the same with music. In the nineteenth century, the works of Richard Wagner often caused people to experience what felt like orgasms while listening to his compositions. Tristan und Isolde, for example, faces flushed, corsets were loosened, smelling salts were necessary. There was no hiding the intensity of their feelings. Just as nothing had prepared them for their first encounter with Wagner’s chromatic harmonies, nothing ever really prepares us for the perfection of this. (The four of them look at the David again. Extreme close-up of his right eye. EXTREME. So extreme it is abstract.)

HECTOR If we really let a work of art in, if we embrace it totally, it should overwhelm us.

LANA Then we wouldn’t be able to go about our daily business.

HECTOR Precisely.

LEO Wow! This is heavy stuff. This is what I came for. Right on.

BIMBI (They’re looking, but will they ever know what they
really see?)

LANA I don’t want to be overwhelmed by art. I want to be overwhelmed by life.

HECTOR No, you don’t. I was overwhelmed by life.

LANA I don’t mean overwhelmed by tragedy like you were. I meant overwhelmed by happiness.

HECTOR So did I. Art’s all that remains to me.

LANA Were you very happy?


LANA That’s so sad.

BIMBI (You’re the sad one, Miss Maxwell.)

LANA What was her name?

HECTOR Violetta.

BIMBI Like the opera?

HECTOR Yes. Both her parents were fanatics.

BIMBI Italians?

HECTOR Germans.

BIMBI They’re the worst. It’s a wonder they didn’t name her for someone in the Ring Cycle. Grimhild or Gutrune or something.

LANA There’s an opera called Violetta?

HECTOR La Traviata.

LANA La Traviata! I’ve heard of that.

HECTOR The heroine is Violetta.

LANA What a beautiful name.

HECTOR She didn’t think so. I called her Vi.

LANA Violetta is much prettier. Vi could be a thing. Viaduct. Viacom. “Honey, have you seen my Viagra?” Violetta could only be a woman. A beautiful woman. I bet she was, too.

HECTOR I thought so.

LANA That’s the important thing. Who cares what other people think?

HECTOR I certainly don’t.

LANA That’s very wise of you.

She moves away from him.

HECTOR (That sounded harsh. She took it the wrong way. Say something to her. I can’t. Yes, you can.)

LANA (See what you get for even talking to people, Lana? When do we eat? Don’t they feed you on this tour?)

BIMBI Where are you with David, Mr. Sampson?

LEO There’s a guy at my gym who has abs like that. Everybody hates him.

HECTOR I don’t know about you but I’m getting hungry, Miss Maxwell.

LANA I’m sorry, were you speaking to me?

HECTOR I’m sorry, you were lost in David.

LANA He’s a good place to be lost. Easy on the eyes and you don’t have to worry what he thinks of you.

BIMBI What else, Mr. Sampson?

LEO I’m thinking if that was me standing up there, you’d all turn your backs. I mean, who wants to look at this? I mean, we all look like this, which is why we don’t want to look
at it.BIMBI Is that really what you’re thinking?

LEO I’m thinking I never looked like that. How different my life would have been if I had. How I’m going to die and that frightens me and I know it shouldn’t but it does and I can’t imagine ever not being afraid of death. (Why are you telling them this?) I’m thinking it’s hard not to hate such perfection. I’m thinking if I had a hammer, yeah, I might like to take a piece out of him–the tip of his nose, maybe– so there’s some flaw, something to make him like the rest of us.

BIMBI I’m sorry I asked you.

LEO I’m being honest.

BIMBI You’re being brutal.

LEO It’s a fantasy.

BIMBI It’s an ugly one.

LEO I’m not going to do it. (She hates me, too, now. They all hate me. You try to tell someone who you really are and they despise you. You show them a bullshit fa”ade so they don’t and you despise yourself).

BIMBI (You can lead these people to art but you can’t make them understand. Pearls before swine. Come off your high horse, Bimbi. What makes you superior to these people? That you speak four languages? That you know the difference between a Fra Angelico and a Botticelli? That your husband loves you and you love him? So what? How does that make you better? Luckier, that’s all, luckier. Different, yes; better, no. But I feel superior to them. I can’t help myself. It’s my delusion.) So, are we done with the David? As if we ever could be! But we still have the Duomo, Ghiberti’s bronze doors, the Uffizi, and Cellini’s Perseus.

LANA I’m not afraid to touch him.

BIMBI What’s stopping you? Don’t let me and that lifeguard on the beach at Rimini be an example. You’ll end up a tour guide in Florence waiting to win the lottery.

LANA I’m sure it’s not allowed.

BIMBI It’s not. That’s what makes it so delicious. Forbidden fruit is always the sweetest.

LANA Tell me about it!

BIMBI I can close my eyes and still see Giorgio’s silken thighs. That’s what the hair on them seemed like: silk. Make your fantasy real. Go on, the guard’s not looking. He’s eating his lunch.

LANA I’m sure a buzzer or something would go off.

LEO Like in The Thomas Crown Affair. I love that movie.

BIMBI There’s no buzzer. Besides, he’s a friend of mine.

LANA Really? You’d let me touch him?

BIMBI I’m not going to stop you.

LANA That’s not quite the same thing.

HECTOR I hope this is a joke. You’re not going to let her put her hand on a work of art? Actually touch it?

LANA It’s a piece of cement for Christ’s sake. You’d think it was made of spun glass.

HECTOR Cement! It’s Carrara marble. You don’t even know what you’d be touching.

LANA You were right about these intellectuals.

LEO Hmm? (Was she talking to me? Shit, I missed it!)

HECTOR It doesn’t take an intellectual to know the difference between cement and carefully sculpted Carrara marble.

LANA Is that like the difference between a rock and a hard place, professor?

HECTOR I’m not going to stand here and let you defile a work of art.

LEO Who’s defiling? She’s touching. How do you think Michelangelo sculpted it? With surgical gloves on? No! With his own two bare hands. Besides, what’s it to you if she touches it?

HECTOR She has oil on her hands.

LANA I do not. What kind of person do you think I am? Oil on my hands!

HECTOR Everyone has oil on their hands. It’s natural. That’s why we can’t go around touching works of art every time we get the urge. Would you go up to a strange man and put your hand on his rear end?

LANA The way strange men put their hand on mine? Of course not!

HECTOR Well, show him the same respect.

LANA He’s a statue. I’m a real living person.

BIMBI Last chance. He’s finishing his sandwich.

LANA If I do it, will someone take my picture touching it?

HECTOR Flash cameras in the Accademia!

LANA What’s the point of doing something if there’s no proof you did?

LEO I’ll take it. We’ll spend the night in jail together.

HECTOR (Are you going to let this happen?) I insist you don’t do this.

LEO You can insist all you want. Insisting ain’t stopping.

BIMBI Aren’t you the tiniest bit tempted, professor?

HECTOR Not in the least.

Extreme close-up of the face of the David from an entirely different angle than before.

BIMBI I don’t believe you. Everyone wants to touch such beauty. Only we don’t feel worthy to.

HECTOR Speak for yourself.

BIMBI I was. I always do. Who do you speak for?

LANA OK, here goes nothing. (She puts her hand out. All she can reach is the David’s pedestal.) Oh.

BIMBI Take the picture.

Leo fumbles with the camera.

HECTOR Take the goddamn picture!

LEO What did it feel like?

LANA You were right not to touch it.

BIMBI You understand now.

LANA I felt so insignificant. Suddenly he seemed like a god.

BIMBI Michelangelo saw the god in all of us. That was his genius.

HECTOR All your life you stand for things, believe in them, rules, stop signs, one and one are two, and then someone does something as wrong, as outrageous, as putting her dirty hands on a work of pristine, sublime beauty–an artifact of the very culture of mankind–and nothing happens. The world doesn’t come to an end, the statue doesn’t collapse, no angry arm of retribution rises up to smite the miscreant down. It makes you wonder how frail all our rules and contracts are. Everything is hanging by a thread when you get right down to it. Everything.

BIMBI I think all great artists understand that, too, and their work is their protest that it should be like this.

LANA I’d like to go back to the hotel.

BIMBI We still have so much to see.

LANA Fine, I’ll walk. Is there a ladies’ room? My hands are kind of dirty.

BIMBI Just by the entrance.

LANA The next person who wants to touch the David, Bimbi: Don’t let them.

She goes.

LEO (Go after her. Now’s your chance.) I’ll go with her. Don’t worry, I’ll catch up at the next stop.

BIMBI Are you sure you’ve seen enough of the David, Mr. Sampson?

LEO Not when you say it like that. Who could?

He goes.

BIMBI Would you like to be alone with him?

HECTOR Thank you. They were kind of noisy.

BIMBI I’m afraid I was, too, Mr. Charlotte.

HECTOR It’s Hector, please.

BIMBI David does that to us. Why can’t we just look at him and be thankful? I’ll wait for you in the minibus. Our driver can get quite aggressive on the horn.

Bimbi goes.

HECTOR (What a stupid expression: minivan. They mini everything nowadays. Minivan, minibar, mini-me.) God, that expression on his face! From every angle it’s different. Sometimes so fierce, at others so noble. All depends on where you stand. I can’t believe she did that. Touched the pedestal, even. God, how Michelangelo must have loved him to make him so beautiful. I could never imagine Vi being so beautiful. As much as I loved her, I always saw her breasts as they were, too large–even from the beginning–and I had begun to look the other way when she came out of the shower and I didn’t want to see anymore how her body had thickened and sagged–not that it was ever perfect, like yours. I love you, Vi. I miss you. I don’t know what I’m doing here without you. Our bed is so empty. So is my life. I miss Andrew, too, but not like you, not like you. What has he got in his hand? What is he holding? A rock, probably. Sure, a rock. He’s David and he’s going to put the rock in his sling and clobber . . . what’s his name? Goliath! That’s it, Goliath. Steve Reeves as Goliath. Whatever happened to him? Whatever happens to all of us? We die, unnoticed, unappreciated–yes, I have good qualities, Vi knew that, maybe she was the only one. I just don’t care to share them with most people. Was that the dread minivan tooting?)

Leo returns.

LEO She’s a big girl. She’ll get back to the hotel. I had to take one last look. It’s so beautiful. (OK, asshole, don’t acknowledge me.)

HECTOR Yes, yes. E bello. E molto bello.

LEO You can say that again.

HECTOR We’re very lucky to have had this experience. Something to tell your grandchildren.

LEO I think I better have some children first. (He can be nice! Go figure.) I had a teacher in high school I looked up to, Mr. Moroney. He would be so happy to know I was standing here. Happy and surprised.

HECTOR Do you know whatever happened to Steve Reeves?

LEO Who?

HECTOR Sorry. Someone before your time.

Lana comes back in.

LANA You, too? One last look, hunh? I wasn’t half a block from here when I said to myself, Where are you going, Lana? You have the rest of your life ahead of you, but you may never pass this way again.

The three of them are looking at the David. They are becoming more and more statuelike themselves as they become more rapt in their concentration on the David. At the same time, the pictures of the David are getting smaller and smaller: His image is receding.

LANA I love the veins in his hands. I had a boyfriend with veins in his hands like that. Right after we broke up, this was in high school, he turned into a junkie. Life is weird.

HECTOR (I love you, Vi. You’re here with me. I feel your hand, I see your face.)

LEO (Don’t be a jerk all your life, Leo. Take something away from this. Yeah, but what? How are you supposed to explain this? Maybe you don’t have to.)

Bimbi returns.

BIMBI Il minibus sta per partire. That’s Italian for the ‘minivan is leaving.”

No one moves. Maybe we hear the minivan horn.

BIMBI (cont.) Take your time, take your time.

Lights are starting to fade.

BIMBI (cont.) It’s your tour. We have all day. May I join you?

The four of them are still looking at the David as the image of him continues to get smaller and smaller. Soon the image of the David has completely disappeared. The four of them are motionless like statues as the lights fade to black while the minivan continues to honk.


Copyright ” 2004 by Terrence McNally. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.