Home » Theater » “EXCELSIOR” a play about JEAN SHEPHERD maybe with Dustin Hoffman, William Hurt, or who?! [C]

“EXCELSIOR” a play about JEAN SHEPHERD maybe with Dustin Hoffman, William Hurt, or who?! [C]


play cover 2

play scene 2

(While the lights are still out, music begins—it is The Dixieland Jug Blowers playing “Boodle-Am Shake”.  It begins with banjos, and jugs playing musical farts—then lyrics, including the words, “I know these words don’t mean a thing….”  The lights come up and SHEPHERD slowly enters stage left and sits at his table, which now has several tall piles of 7” tape boxes next to the tape recorder.  He tilts his head to listen to the music.

SHEPHERD    Hey Jim, play that part again.

(The music replays,  “I know these words don’t mean a thing….”)

SHEPHERD   Yeah, one more time there, Jim.  (He raises his hands like an orchestra conductor as the same words of the lyric repeat: “I know these words don’t mean a thing.”  He laughs and nods his head.  He swivels his chair and talks to the audience.)  See that sign up there? (He points to IN HOC AGRICOLA CONC.)  In hoc agricola conc.  One of the world’s great sayings in which the words don’t mean a thing.  It was the motto of the Warren G. Harding Elementary School where I festered as a kid.  They got it from an old radio program you probably never heard of called “Vic and Sade,” about little people with real but little thoughts on real but little stuff.  Vic’s dumb-ass lodge proceedings were full of such pompous, meaningless, ersatz Latin.  For me it gives a certain phony class to the illusion that optimistic twaddle will get you somewhere in life.  In hoc agricola conc.

(He gives a thumbs up sign to the engineers’ window and the ON THE AIR sign lights.  The overhead sign slowly revolves so that HIT THE MONEY BUTTON is now facing the audience.)

on the air

SHEPHERD    (Turns on his tape recorder and his “Bahn Frei” theme music begins.  He speaks into the microphone)  Okay, okay, come on, come on, that’s it.  Out, out!  Cut it, cut it.  That’s it, that’s it.  (The music stops.  He pauses.) I hear that thing sometimes and it drives me out of my skull.  You ever had something hang on you—for like, 4,000 years—and you wonder why you keep it around?  I got a letter from a kid.  “Have you thought of changing your theme?” he says.  No!— No!  I couldn’t conceivably do that.  Now the reason I have this theme—are you listening, kid—is not because it’s a good piece of music.  But for exactly the opposite reason—which to me makes far more sense.  This piece of music, kid, is probably the most mediocre piece of claptrap that has ever been perpetrated on the listening public since Marconi.  And what’s so good about how bad it is—get this—it always sounds like it’s going to break into something better—but never does.  And it has a certain nutty insouciance which—uh—in some ways like that blithe I-could-care-less-about-mere-disaster of the late great Don Quixote!  Let’s just say it gallops off in all directions.  It arrives at none of them!  How like life itself, ah, kid?  How like what it’s all about, right, kid?  Well then, how could I conceivably think of doing away with this piece of—uh—claptrap—which, by the way, I think is a great word.  Would you please play a little more of that claptrap, Jim?  Just hit it there.

(Beginning of the “Bahn Frei” theme music starts.)

SHEPHERD     Listen to this—it starts with a bugle!  Oh, man!  Anything that starts out with a bugle is, you know—it’s filled with portent!  And then—the sound of a thundering orchestra—galloping endlessly over the plain!  (A few moments of the theme music continues, then stops.)  It’s all of us!  And that’s exactly why I use it!  (He laughs.)  And it’s timeless.  And it’s also a failure!  How like all of us.  I mean a failure in the ultimate sense of course.  And yet, kiddies, we carry on, don’t we?  Marching ever onward—and having fun!—if we’re smart, enjoying every moment we’ve got in this nutty fruitcake existence, and keeping our knees loose.  And once in a while, when we’ve got the chance, kicking a little butt.

(He pauses, then slowly swivels around, facing the audience and raising one finger to his lips, smiles conspiratorially.  He swivels back to his microphone.)

SHEPHERD     Let’s kick a little butt.  (Pause.)  Once again the science of electronics brings deeper and richer meaning to your lives.  Listeners, put your radio on the window sill.  In an unprecedented act of good will towards its listenership, in realization of its deep responsibilities as a purveyor of public good, WOR makes this service available to you exclusively.  This is the only station where you’ll find an outlet for your aggressions, you’ll find expressions for your repressions.  (He speaks in low, conspiratorial tones)  Put your radio on your window sill now!  Do it now!  (He pounds on the desk.  He picks up the red radio and, swiveling around, swivels forward to the edge of the stage and puts the radio on the floor at down center facing the audience, then swivels back to the desk and his microphone.)  Now!  The loudspeaker pointed out—toward the neighborhood.  You know that crowd out there.  You know that gang.  Of course you do.  Put it out there.  That’s it.  And when I give you the cue, turn that radio up as loud as it will go!  We’re going to use a very special kind of invective tonight.  This is known as the “disquieting, with a touch of morbid curiosity” type.  Which is type 6SJ7GT, and a very difficult type to use.  You can drop out now if you feel it’s a bit too strong.  Okay—radio on window sill now!  (Whispering)  Turn it up!  Lights out!  For heaven’s sake, turn the lights out.  (All lights go out except for a dim spotlight focused on the radio.)  Turn the radio up.  Pretend you’re looking at television.  Pretend you’re asleep.  Okay.

(There is a moment of silence, and then SHEPHERDs voice comes out of the radio, extremely loud with the harsh sound of cheap loudspeakers)  OKAY YOU RATS!  YOU THOUGHT YOU WERE GOING TO GET AWAY WITH IT!  WE’RE ON TO YOU!  GIVE UP BEFORE YOU GET ONE BETWEEN THE EYES!  (There are a few moments of silence and the lights come on again as SHEPHERD is placing his radio back on the table. Then he reaches for the microphone.)

SHEPHERD     That ought to shake them up for a while—all those crummy rats out there in the stygian darkness!  (Pause.  SHEPHERD laughs.)  Listeners, we did it!  We’re back on the air and we have a sponsor!  Listeners, go out and buy more of their soap!  Thank you Sweetheart Soap, you’re a great sponsor.  I appreciate your support when the going got a bit rough.  And you get stuff clean too.  It’s nice when you can get the boss to back down.  Shows the boss who’s boss.  (He grabs the microphone in one hand and cups his other hand around his mouth, raising his head as though looking toward heaven as he calls out loudly.)  Hey, Ledbetter—ha ha ha ha .

(SHEPHERD slams the mic loudly down on the table, picks it up and begins talking into it again in his normal voice.)

SHEPHERD   Hey, why do I enjoy doing this show so much?  What’s the matter with me?  I can’t figure it out.  You know?  Why—why—you know I—it bothers me sometimes because—you’re supposed to, you know, you’re supposed to look at your work as work.  No, I’ll tell you this is, uh—you know, the Protestant ethic—causes me a little problem at this point and—really.  The other day this guy interviewed me.  He says, “You must get very tired.  Always thinking of new things or trying to do stuff every night on your show and all that.”   And I said (he is speaking in mock solemn voice) “Yes, that is true.  I get extremely tired.”  (He begins singing.)   Yes sir, that’s my baby.  No sir, don’t mean maybe.  Yes sir, that’s my baby now.  (Stops singing.)  Speaking of dreams.  You remember we were speaking of dreams.  We’ve all got dreams, right?  I suspect that at least fifteen percent of the population of New York City—particularly Manhattan—concealed someplace in a pile of papers—the beginnings of the eternal novel.  A poem, a play, “A thing I was gonna write once.  And I am going to write it yet—you just wait and see!”  I would like to know how many untouched watercolor sets there are—in this town—of guys who once—of women who once were going to take up painting.  Thousands of tons of caked, hard, rock-like oil paints that haven’t been touched since the Christmas of 1939.  And the cracked guitars that are hanging in basements covered with dust, that haven’t been strummed since 1947—after the second lesson.  I have a feeling that these things are holding us down.  (Pause.)  Speaking of things that are holding us down, this is WOR AM and FM in New York.

(SHEPHERD grabs his microphone and swivels around so he is facing and speaking to the audience as well as to his radio listeners.)

SHEPHERD  I have a suspicion that these are the things that if somehow we could clear the decks—get rid of all the glop—and admit once, to ourselves, we’re not going to do it—and throw all this stuff out.  We ought to have a Dream Collection Day.  You know how they have rag collection days, and old metal collection days?  We ought to have a Dream Collection Day.  Where everybody takes the half-finished model airplane out of the basement, the half-finished novel, the cracked guitar, the ancient watercolor set, and puts it out in front of the house.  As a kind of public recanting, you see.  Puts it out in front of the house for the salvage people to finally come and get.  And everybody of course would have to do it together—all together, we’ll clean out all these broken, old, sad, poor, wonderful, idiotic, debilitating, defeating dreams.

(SHEPHERD looks over his shoulder at the engineer’s window momentarily.)

SHEPHERD   ‘Cause you know what happens, Jim—is that every time you go into the closet and you see that lump of paper back there, it looks out at you.  Every time you go down to the basement you see that guitar, it looks at you.  And it says, “Aha!  I am your past.”  This is what Scrooge’s ghosts, you know, were based on.  “I was a dream once.  Look what you did to it.”  That pair of hockey skates, that in a moment of impetuosity you rushed out in the fall of 1951 and you bought.  You wore them twice—both times realizing that you had weak ankles that went all the way up to your ears—that are still hanging down there in the basement.  “Aha!”

(SHEPHERD stands, microphone still in hand, and walks up and down the front of the stage, leaning over toward the audience, gesticulating to them, very animated)

SHEPHERD  Let’s clear it all away!  Let’s have Dream Collection Day!  Let’s get behind it and get rid of all this stuff!  It’s killing us!  It’s like dead tissue growing on us.   Let’s get rid of all those portable typewriters—that’ll never write that novel.  Let’s get rid of all those yellow sheets with all the notes for all the poems and plays.  Let’s get rid of those old guitars.  We’ll declare it a city-wide holiday!  Dream Collection Day!  And we could all—we could all sit behind our windows and we’ll watch these wagons go past loaded to the gunnels.  Loaded to the gunnels with all the old glop and all the old, sad, decayed, past moments of glory.  All the old—all the old, staring, vacant faces of the rusted ice skates that were never worn.  Dream Collection Day.  What a magnificent idea!  Magnificent moment.  Maybe if we got rid of all these cigar boxes—full of charcoal pencils, those battered pads—from the life classes of years ago.  Maybe it might start again.  But what would happen, of course would be this.  The day after Dream Collection Day, there’d be a guy walking down—walking down Fifth Avenue somewhere—maybe in the 90s—walking along there, the wind is coming out of Central Park—he smells just the touch of that sere, brown winter greenery with its strange excitement.  And he would say to himself, “You know, what I oughta do is learn how to play the guitar! ” And it would start all over again.  It would start all over again.  The whole business.

(SHEPHERD returns to his chair, sits, and swivels in it, facing away from the audience.)

SHEPHERD  Three hours later, some guy would go into a stationery shop on 8th Street and buy four pads of yellow second sheets, two pencils, and he would go home and he would start to write. (He raises an outstretched hand toward the engineers’ window and soft jazz starts in the background)  The first line would say, “The youth sat looking out over the town that lay like a small paper clip curved in the bosom of creased green earth.”  And it would start all over again.

(SHEPHERD scats along to the soft jazz for a few moments and then he and the music stop.)

SHEPHERD     In hoc agricola conc.  (He sings the line from “Boodle-Am Shake” “I know these words don’t mean a thing.”  (Stops singing.)  Oh, Shepherd’s not complaining, not at all.  There is not one single word of complaint you’ll hear from me about life.  Not one.  I mean, I sit here looking at the raisins and I sit here looking at the dried apricots, I sit here looking at the vast, steaming, bubbling, hissing caldron, the fruitcake of life, and I realize—I realize I’ve hardly scratched the surface.  (Looking up at the engineers’ window.)  Commercials?  Hey, it’s commercial time. Time we hit the money button.  The button that keeps us alive.  Speaking of singing, do you have my favorite beer commercial ready there?  All right, let’s go gang, before we get seriously involved.  Yeah.  Hey, listen, friends, it’s the weekend coming up, and that is—a very serious time if you believe in beer and that means you don’t want to be caught like about the middle of this weekend without any suds on hand.  And if you’re gonna lay in a real trough-full of genuine, vibrant suds, we can only recommend one.  And you can get it in the magnificent champagne golden can—which makes a nice clink when it hits the sidewalk.  And while we still got you quivering out there, we’ve got another little ding dong for you—real quick.  Hit the money button.

(SHEPHERD looks to the engineers’ window and raises his middle finger toward it.  There is silence as SHEPHERD swivels around like a kid, several times in his chair.)

SHEPHERD   Yessir, that’s my baby.  Speaking of bringing it back into perspective, there is nothing brings us back into clearer, cleaner perspective in this world than a good blast of commerciality.  Believe me, I have learned long ago—when you are living in the land of Caesar, you render—by George—unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.  Ya pay the piper.  And so, now, get ready to pay the piper for 120 seconds.  Caesar is just around the corner.  Here he comes with the message, by George.  In hoc agricola concHit the money button.

The ON THE AIR sign goes off.

 (Silence as SHEPHERD swivels around several times in his chair, not like a kid any more.)

SHEPHERD    (Looking at and talking to audience.)  Speaking of idlers here we have the—commercial people around—hanging around by the coffee bar there, ready to leap in and make a couple of bucks—and so, we will render them 120 seconds of their due.  Stand by, friends—hang onto the handlebars, and hope for the best.  Keep your knees loose.  We’ll be back in two minutes.  The longest two minutes in radio.  (SHEPHERD laughs and swivels in his chair.)

(The phone rings and SHEPHERD answers it, listening to it for a few moments)

SHEPHERD  (Speaking into phone as he swivels around, facing the audience)  Goddammit Ledbetter, these fucking commercials are killing me!  I can’t get a word in edgewise.  (He listens for a few moments)  Oh yeah, sure I asked for it, like hell!  Live with it, shit!  Easy for you to say—you don’t have a style to be cramped.  Anything interrupts whatever you’re saying is an improvement!

(He listens for a few moments, then opens his mouth to speak, but doesn’t.  Slams down the phone.  The ON THE AIR sign goes on.)

on the air

SHEPHERD  (He swivels again, back to audience)  Shepherd had to stop that one, boy!  He was gettin’ scared because if they ever backed him away from his radio show—what would he have left?  So to prevent that disaster happening, let us give the commercial people their due—for the next 120 seconds—let’s listen to the beauties, the glories of getting out and spending that cash.  Right, friend?  Next two minutes belong to Caesar.  Hit the button.

The ON THE AIR sign goes off.

 (Silence.  SHEPHERD stands up and paces back and forth.  Looks up at the small overhead signs.  Paces.  Sits down at the table.)

 He signals to the engineer and the ON THE AIR sign comes on. 

on the air

SHEPHERD Hit the money button.  Hit the money button.  Hit the money button.  Hit the money button.

  He makes the cut sign to the engineer and the ON THE AIR sign goes off. 

He picks up the phone and dials.  He swivels around, facing the audience, talking on phone.)  This is Shepherd.  Get me my goddamn agent.  (Pause.)  Hi, Charlie.  How’s the video deal going?  How’s the film deal going?  (He listens a moment.)  I know things take time.  I want it now.  I deserve it.  We’re using my published stories.  Tell them to read ‘em.  I’ll buy them all the copies of Playboy they’re in.  I’ll send over my book.  I’ll autograph it for them.  Just get them on the stick.  (He slams down the phone.)  Charlie, they tell me you’re the best and they’re killing you—they’re killing me, Charlie.  (Pause.)  Nothing but a bunch of troglodytes—of Ogs and Charlies.

(He turns back to his desk and motions to the engineers’ window.  The ON THE AIR sign comes on.)

on the air

SHEPHERD    You know there was a historic moment that was recorded by one of the great physical anthropologists—at the University of Pennsylvania.  And he has reconstructed it.  I thought you might like to know about it.  It was one of the great—it was the time that man became man.  It was a very important moment.  These two guys are sitting on the shores of this antediluvian lake.  For the purposes of discussion we’ll call one of them Og and the other’s Charlie.  We do not know their actual names.  It’s been that long.

(SHEPHERD stands up and turns around with his microphone in hand and approaches the front edge of the stage.  He leans over and, speaking into the microphone, he also is speaking directly to the audience.)

SHEPHERD    And eternally, every twenty years the sky has fallen down and killed at least fourteen million.  Now we like to pretend that we are 20th-century man.  This is, of course, modern civilized man.  It’s interesting to note that more civilized, modern men have died from the hand of his brother—civilized modern man—than in all recorded history prior to 1900.  I mean, we are getting to the point—of course it’s true that technology has its own particular fascination.  Particularly when we apply it to the things that we really want.  Like killing everybody.  This is true progress—maybe.  (He laughs.)  But these two guys were crouched down.  They were looking out over that dark, dark and placid sea.  And they were crouched.  And then, one fateful afternoon, just after Charlie had come back from gathering a few clams down at the waterside, Og turned to him—looked at him for a long instant that went on for maybe six or seven years—just looked at him.  Things moved much slower in ancient times than they do today.

(SHEPHERD begins pacing back and forth across the front of the stage, still speaking into the microphone.)

SHEPHERD    And then, without saying a word he reached down, picked up a large stone, raised it above his head, and brought it down with a telling, fatal crash between the eyes of Charlie. (He has acted out the picking up of the rock and killing Charlie.  Long pause.)  In that instant, man became man.  He ceased being a beastie of the field.  He no longer could return to the world of flowers.  Never again could he pretend he was like the clams.  That moment modern man was born.  That instant!  It was the great, great turning point.  And Charlie fell in a pool of blood.  Og settled back on his haunches, and continued to look out over the lake.  But they were seen—by another man, who crouched by his cave.  He picked up a rock and moved into the shadows.  And waited.  Modern man had begun to progress.

(SHEPHERD sits back in his chair facing the table.)

SHEPHERD    (He turns his head away from the microphone and speaks to himself.)  Back into the shadows—that “only The Shadow knows.”  Into the shadows where evil lurks—with the slobs.  (He turns and speaks into the microphone again.)  Speaking of slob art, this is WOR—friends—in New York.  Hey Leigh, honey.  Leigh Brown.  (Shouts.)  Leigh, honey.  Are you my producer-lady or what?  I don’t care what you’re doing.  When I’m on the air you are also a listener.  Listen!  All you guys and you gal behind the glass are my minions.  You do as I say when I say it.  I don’t care if you’re not feeling well, honey.  Be ill on your own time, babe.  Speaking of sickness, this is WOR in New York.  Speaking of sickness, did I ever tell you about the time I was working for this crummy radio station in Cincinnati?  One day, one of the sneaky, rotten engineers—I’ve noticed that the engineers have the truly corroded minds.  Something rotten—something basically rotten about many engineers.   (He points at the engineers’ window as he speaks)  They sit there and they—oh yeah—I mean, year after year they look in through the glass and they watch shows being done, and eventually they are totally immune to anything.  Absolutely, I’m serious, I mean if Moses came down out of that—out of that mountain—but you don’t want to hear about rotten engineers, do you?  (He shrugs his shoulders.)  In hoc agricola conc.

(He stands, holding the microphone and faces the audience, paces back and forth across the front of the stage several times, saying nothing.  At far stage right he stops and looks at the audience.)

SHEPHERD (He paces back to far stage left, stops and looks at the audience.)  Speaking of evil ideas, this is WOR, New York.   (He paces back to far stage right, stops and looks at the audience.)  Speaking of intimations of disaster, this is WOR in New York.  (He paces back to far stage left, stops and looks at the audience.)  Speaking of wild offers and the timberline, this is WOR, New York.  Boy, we are in the wilderness.  That’s another story.  Another kind of wilderness, you know.  Just as there are many mansions, there are many wildernesses and many gods.  And boy, we are in a wilderness now!  I mean, it’s a dark, dark one.   (He paces back to far stage right, stops and looks at the audience.) George Ade said that fun is the few moments that you can forget that you’re growing old and are about to die.  And there’s much truth to this.  (Pause.)  And speaking of death, this is WOR, New York.

 (He returns to down center and signals a cut to the engineers’ window. 

The ON THE AIR sign goes off.

SHEPHERD    (Talking to the engineers’ window.)  Leigh, honey, we’re eating out fancy tonight.  (He pauses, listening.)  I don’t care—you can be tired tomorrow.  Perk up.  And wear that sexy red dress I like.

(He signals to the engineers’ window, and the ON THE AIR sign comes on.)

on the air

SHEPHERD   (Sings while pointing at the window.)  I’m the Sheik of Araby.  Your love belongs to me.   (Stops singing.  Blows a kiss.  He reaches around with both arms, giving Leigh a big imaginary hug.)  Speaking of trouble, this is WOR.  Holy smokes!  (He gives a single blast from his kazoo)  This is WOR in New York.  Wouldn’t you like to have a station signature that’s really angry?  You know they have—they always have these pleasant little ones—you know (Sings.)   “WOR, your friendly station.”  You know that kind.  You hear these singing station breaks all over (He sings in jazzy, scatty way)  Who oh da da da da alr da dada da wa waawawaw—your station for news badadawawa.  (He plays a few moments on his kazoo)  I’d like to have a station signature—I’d love it just once if some station had a sense of humor about it.  WOR.  What a cacophony, gallimaufry, which reminds me, this is WOR, New York.  Silly, idiotic radio station!  If only it had engineers and producers who did what they were supposed to do.  And Leigh, you can’t wear that tacky rayon outfit out to eat.  You wouldn’t know a silk dress from a sow’s ear.  (He looks at the engineers’ window.)  Hey, give me another commercial quick.

SHEPHERD signals cut, and the ON THE AIR light goes off.

(He stands and walks around to the engineers’ window and looks in.)

SHEPHERD     Leigh, honey, I hate to seen a grown producer cry.  You know I love ya.  No more tears.  I shouldn’t have said that on the air—but I’ve got to say what pops into my mind when it hits me.  It’s what I do.  I can’t always do instant edits.  Okay, okay, little-producer-mine, come on home and I’ll re-dress you for dinner.

(SHEPHERD walks back to the table and sits.)

SHEPHERD     Give me my “Boodle Am” music under my next bit. It’ll be a shorty. Then bring up the theme and end it. I’ve got a date with my honey tonight. Hit more money buttons–see if I care.

(He signals and the ON THE AIR light comes on.)

on the air

(“Boodle Am” music in the background as he speaks, then fading out.)

SHEPHERD     By the way, how are you doing with your bailing? Heh? Has it ever occurred to you that life is one long succession of work with the bailing can? Your own private bailing can–down there at the bottom of the boat–trying to keep the water that’s coming in from lapping up around your knees. And is it water? That’s another question we’d like to ask.

 (There is silence as SHEPHERD stands and takes off his earphones, putting them on the table. 

He makes the cut signal and the ON THE AIR sign goes off. 

(He turns off his tape recorder and removes the tape, placing it on the table, grabs his jacket from the table.  As he walks off stage right, the lights dim out.  While the lights are out, SHEPHERD sings and plays the kazoo to a recording of “I’m the Sheik of Araby.”)


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