Home » Theater » “EXCELSIOR” a play about JEAN SHEPHERD maybe with Stephen Wright, or who?! [E]

“EXCELSIOR” a play about JEAN SHEPHERD maybe with Stephen Wright, or who?! [E]


play cover 2play scene 4

(The lights very slowly come on but remain somewhat dim.  SHEPHERD is still seated in the chair with his back to the audience.  Very slowly he gets up and leans with both hands on the table.  The phone rings and he picks it up.)

SHEPHERD  Hello.  (He listens for about ten seconds.)  Charlie, no more bad news.  (He hangs up the phone wearily.)  I’m getting old.

(He stands, and with a swipe of his hand knocks over the director’s chair. He looks at the maroon radio on the table face down, hesitates, then fondles it gently.  He continues to look at it, then picks it up and places it right-side-up on the table to the right front.   He goes to a pile of audio tapes on the floor and picks up a tall stack of them and puts them on the table.  He pulls the tape player forward to the left front of the table.  He looks around at the floor.  Then he walks slowly toward the right wing and wheels his office chair back on stage and puts it centered in front of the table.  He removes the jacket he had worn through Scene Three and tosses it onto the left end of the table.  There is a wide black armband on his white shirt.) 

SHEPHERD  (Turns his head, looking back at the audience.  Pause.  He  fingers the black armband.)  It’s an old family tradition.  Yes, Leigh’s gone.  Leigh’s dead.  You have no idea how much I love her.  How much I need her.  She was supposed to outlive me.  (Pause, then he continues, almost uncomprehendingly.)  I depended on her.  (Turns completely around center stage front and bends forward at the waist.)  Not a word to anyone, ya fatheads.  Not a word—never!


leigh in bird book

Page in a guide book to

North American Birds

found in Jean and Leigh’s

house in Maine.


(He turns back to the table, sits on the desk chair facing the table and shuffles some of the tape boxes, chooses one and puts it on the machine.  He flips on the play switch and walks to stage right, waiting for the audio, lowering his head a bit in anticipation.)

SHEPHERD ON TAPE  (it is part of his broadcast from Scene Two.)  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.

SHEPHERD  (Startled.)  Oh shit no.  Wrong tape.  Not that.  (He walks back toward the table, moving more slowly—it is an old man’s walk now.)

SHEPHERD ON TAPE  (As he is moving toward the table.)  You know how they have rag collection days, and old metal collection days?  We ought to have a Dream Collection Day.  (Annoyed, he turns off the tape. He sits again.  Removes tape and puts on another.)

SHEPHERD    Let’s try that again.  (Turns on tape player.  Turns around by swiveling the chair as he had in the beginning, facing the audience.)

SHEPHERD ON TAPE    Just a philosophical question.  I mean, who does who in—in life?  Or—and this is the worst question of all to ask—Do you do yourself in?—Aaaaa?  “Oh no, it can’t be!  No, no, that’s ridiculous!  No, no!  It was society that did it to me!  Rotten, crummy, evil society!”

SHEPHERD    No!  Where the hell did that come from?  Le…!  She was supposed to toss all that batch, damn it!  (Stops tape and removes it.)  She was a good wife.  The best.  And a darn good assistant, most of the time.  (Pause.)  She got such a kick out of being an extra—you know, in some of my films.


Lovely Arlita in “Phantom of the Open Hearth”

(He puts on another tape and pushes play.)

SHEPHERD ON TAPE    Now all of this might seem to you to be a mélange of nothingness—but isn’t really a mélange of nothingness.  Not at all.  Because it is a mélange of our life, the existence we live.  And if you’re going to be fulfilled, you’ve got to live your existence out.  You’ve got to play out the string.  It’s—it’s just the natural course of events.

SHEPHERD    (Nods his head.)  Yeah, that’s more like it.  Listen to this(He stops the tape and fast forwards.  Then starts the tape again.)

SHEPHERD ON TAPE    Something that bothers me is to find a man who—who will walk away from things which are going on because he doesn’t like them.  This is—this is wrong—you should stand and look.  You should watch this great crowd at the ball game, you should hear this guy hollering, “Come on, baby, hang in there!”  This is all part of it, you know.  You should go to the snake chucking.  And—and—just stand off and look.  And if you do stand off and look enough you’ll begin to have this great love of it all, which is an undeniable thing.

SHEPHERD    Now we’re getting it.  More, give me more!  Remember this one?  Of course you do.  (He quotes from himself.)  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 cauldron, the fruitcake of life, and I realize—I realize I’ve hardly scratched the surface…. (He fast forwards and starts the tape again.  He is looking down, contemplating.)

SHEPHERD ON TAPE     How can I say it?  How can I say it?  How can I say it?  You know, when you’ve said it all.  You still haven’t said any of it.  You really haven’t, you know.  You try to get it out—you try.  I’m looking out, and I see a white ship way off in the distance, trailing a long black streamer of smoke.  And I see a white cloud and gray gulls.  I can hear that wind beating down from the north.  There’s a kind of coolness in the air.  There’s always a coolness in the air in summer that says one day it’s going to be winter.  It’s going to be winter.  And in winter there’s always a softness you can find that says it’s going to be summer.  And so it shall be.

SHEPHERD     (He stops the tape.)  And so it shall be.  Yes.  (He starts the tape again.  He stands, turns and glances up at the audience.  He remains looking at them.)

SHEPHERD ON TAPE     I’m standing there, and I’m trying to figure out how to say it to you.  I can’t.  Never can.  I guess that’s the final frustration.  That nobody ever can say all of it to somebody else.  No matter how hard you try, no matter how much you want.  And in fact, I think that the more you want to say it, the less likely and the less able you are to do it.   I’m standing there, and that ship finally just disappears.  Hear it?  Did you get?—listen.  Listen—you hear it?  I’ve been trying to say it.  What I have been trying to say all along.  Yeah.  There’s not much time left.  But you’ve got to hear it.  You’ve got to be able to hear it.  I guess you can’t.  I guess everybody hears what he is hearing.  Nobody else can hear it.  Did you hear that?  Oh yeah.  You know, it’s going to be summer soon.  Yes.  Yes.

SHEPHERD    (He turns back and stops the tape. He sits facing the desk, elbows on the desk, with forearms raised.  He bends his head down, resting it in his two hands over the desk.  After a long pause he speaks very slowly, wearily.)  It’s over.  All over.  Lost and there’s nothing to be done about it.  I lose.  (He puts his hand over the black armband and rubs it gently up and down.) Leigh baby, where are you?  Leigh?

(The general lighting dims slowly, almost out, remaining that way as he slowly grasps his head in two hands.  Then the overhead spotlight comes slowly on until it is very bright on him.  After a few moments he slowly rises like an awakening giant.  He pushes back the chair and climbs onto the table, picking up the signs he had cut down earlier.  He turns around to face the audience.  He looks at each of the signs and places each back flat on the table. As he stands back up he accidentally knocks into the four-sided sign with the scene titles on it.

SHEPHERD    Goddamnit!  What fool?! 

(He looks at the sign box, then, ducking, steps inside the openwork box.  He lifts the last sign out—DREAM COLLECTION DAY— and, handling it slowly so the audience can read it, tosses it to the floor dismissively.  It makes a loud, clattering sound as it hits, then he does the same with I’M AN ENTERTAINER, and THE MONEY BUTTON, each clattering loudly.  When he lifts HIGH ON A MOUNTAINTOP, he contemplates it for a long time, then, bending over, places it upright against the maroon radio so the audience can still read it.  

play scene 1

zenith 2.26.13
The “Boodle-Am” music begins at very low volume andstanding now, still on the table inside the now empty openwork box, he tilts his head, listening.  The music fades slowly out and he looks back at the audience.  He takes a deep breath.  The openwork box rises slowly out of sight.)

SHEPHERD    (He looks down, encompassing the entire audience, talking to them in a conversational tone.)  Don’t you ever feel the desire once in a while to run away into an esoteric world?  Yeah.  (He cocks his head as if he has heard an audience response.)   No, no—no, no, no.  Everybody says, “Just run away.”  That’s no good, because the devils and your illusions pursue you to the ends of the earth.  And—yeah, they nip and yell at you and bite at your elbows.  Oh yeah, you just can’t run away from them because they’re—now don’t get me into this philosophical concept—they are you.  Did you ever try to run away from your own shadow?  (He stares into the audience for a few moments.)  Man back there nods his head yes.  (Pause.)  Well, have you ever succeeded in doing it?  Let me tell you about the cartoon one time I saw as a kid.  I don’t know whether any of you ever saw this one but it haunted me—for years.  It still does.

(SHEPHERD becomes more energetic, moving back and forth along the table top, very engaged in explaining all this to the audience.)

SHEPHERD    I’m this kid, see, and there was a nutty cartoon series that used to show up in the movies—where a guy would open up an inkwell, and you’d see this big hand and it would start drawing.imagesKoko the Clown

Well I’m sitting there and I’m watching—on came the cartoon (He half-sings the following quickly, imitating the cartoon’s music.) Rica tica ta ta rica tica ta ta wa wa rica tica tica ta ta ta.  And the name of the cartoon was something like, “Me and My Shadow and Me—Whoopy.” And you see the big drawing board and the hand starts to go.  (He moves his hand in front of him as though pen in hand, quickly drawing, concentrating on the imaginary drawing board as he whistles quick little notes as he draws.)  It’s drawing (Whistles, draws.) and it draws one of those little cartoon clowns(Whistles, draws.)  He draws a little cartoon hat on him. (Whistles, draws.)  And then, there’s a little clown—a creature.  And the creature looks out at him.

(SHEPHERD cocks his head and looks up with a silly creature-like smile.  Whenever the creature speaks, it is in a funny, high-pitched voice and a silly smile.)

SHEPHERD    (In high-pitched voice.)  “Hey whoopy.  How are you?”  (Then normal voice.)  And he waves at him. (Whistles.)  And the little creature looks around and he starts to go, and all of a sudden the guy, the voice—the man’s voice who’s drawing says (Man’s voice is a bit authoritarian, but friendly, as though speaking to a small child.), “Wait a minute.  Just a minute.”  The little creature looks up and says, “What do you want?”  Says, “Wait a minute.  Here.  I haven’t drawn your shadow yet.”  “Oh, oh. Oh yeah.  Yeah, yeah, okay doc.”  So he goes (Whistles, draws.)  He’s sketching in this black shadow, see (Whistles, draws.)  He says, “Okay, there you are.”  And you see the shadow there, see, back of him.  He says, “Okay, there you go.  Good luck, bye bye.”

(SHEPHERD acts as though he is the artist, smiles approvingly at his work, folding his hands in front of himself for a few moments, contented.)

SHEPHERD    And the little thing goes (Whistles.)    Starts to walk off, says, “So long, doc.”  Starts to walk off the page but his shadow doesn’t go!  He walks to the edge of the page  (Mimicking the creature, he walks to the edge of the table and continues acting the creature’s part here with exaggerated cartoon-like movements.)  And suddenly he realizes, see, he comes back and he makes a grab for the shadow.  He’s going to hook it on the back of him.  He grabs for the shadow, pulls it towards him like a rug, you see.  But the shadow goes Woop!  Right out of his hand—tica tica tica tica and runs off and down the page (SHEPHERD uses his fingers to indicate the quick scurrying back and forth of the shadow.)  and the entire scene resolves itself into the problem of this thing chasing all the way through the streets and up and down over rooftops yelling and hollering with the cats and the dogs after him.  He is chasing his shadow.  And then once in a while the shadow gets away from him and hides behind the chimbly, as we said in Hammond, Indiana—it’s a kid thing.  Hide behind this chimbly, see.  And this guy’s looking around.  (Creature voice and smile.)  “I guess I lost it!  What good is anybody when they don’t have a shadow?!  Where’s my…”  And he starts looking down the street (He goes to one edge of the table and, raising his hand shielding his eyes, searches out into the audience, looking back and forth) and this little thing would look out.  (He now peers out, imitating the shadow, makes rings with both thumbs and forefingers around his eyes.)  You see these two little eyes, see.  The shadow has eyes looking out  “Heh heh,” (Said in a cartoon-sinister voice.)  The shadow laughs and then suddenly the shadow starts running behind him making all kinds of wild scenes behind him, that are not at all his shadow!

(SHEPHERD in the following, imitates the monster gorilla and the creature with appropriate, exaggerated movements and voices.)

SHEPHERD    Like there would be a shadow of a gorilla walking!  “Huh! Huh!” behind this little guy!  And he’s walking down the street and he walks past a lot of people standing around—just little rabbits and elves and stuff—whatever it is that lives in cartoonworld, you know.  And they see this shadow of this monstrous gorilla!  “Huh! Huh! Huh!”  And there’s this little tiny squirt walking in front of the shadow!  And there’s “Ah! Whoh!” (Amazed voices of cartoonworld creatures.)  And they can’t figure out whether the gorilla is real, or whether this guy is inside of him a genuine gorilla!  Fantastic monster!  And they’re all running.  They’re scared of him!  And he looks and all of a sudden he feels real big—he’s caught up in the illusion.  “Oh boy!” you know.  He says, “Alright, alright you guys, don’t—don’t hang around.  I’ll fight—I’ll fight you!”  And then, as they turn around to look it’s no longer a shadow of a gorilla behind him, it’s a shadow of a tiny thing!  It’s a little tiny shadow.  (He slows down, sad, as he continues.)  Smaller than he ever thought it would ever be.  (He laughs a nasty, hostile laugh.)

(SHEPHERD smiles a big sheepish grin.)

SHEPHERD    I used to tell lots of stories about my kid-hood.  (He shakes his index finger at the audience like a pedant giving a lesson.)  Be careful about the shadow you’re casting.  Shadows and illusions.  (Pause.)  Speaking of shadows and illusions, (he grasps an imaginary microphone out of the air and speaks into his thumb,)  this is WOR, a mere shadow of its former self.  (He holds the imaginary microphone at arm’s length and stares at it, gives a big silly grin, and casually tosses it back over his shoulder.)  Very instructive cartoon.  Remember, I’m a kid—about six months after that I was extremely conscious of my shadow.  And I would try to run away from it once in a while, you know.  But I never could quite make that, and then on top of it sometimes the shadow would disappear completely like you’re casting no shadow at all.  And then I would have that same naked feeling that the crea…. (Creature voice.)  “Hey, help me, doc.  My shadow’s gone.” (Laughs.)  I’d look behind the tree—see if I could find it.  Pause.)  The problem of the shadow.  It’s difficult for us to know whether we are the shadow  or the shadow is us.  (Pause.)  And I remember this old radio show used to open up (In a deep, slow, hollow voice.)  “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?  The Shadow knows!”  Now here was an ancient, creaky radio show.  There is not one, single rinky dink television show—or one half-baked movie with a thirty-million-dollar budget that comes out with even a sliver of wisdom that remotely approaches that opening line.  “What evil lurks in the hearts of men?”  Yes.  I don’t know what would happen if that opened up the old Mary Tyler Moore Show,—or Sesame Street.  Never see it discussed on the New York Times op-ed page, no mention ever by this current crop of talk jocks.  “What evil lurks?”  A proposition we generally like to ignore—and when I say “we,” I don’t exclude myself, you know—I’m just as big a self-reflective son of a bitch as the next man-jack among you!  (He looks toward the back of the audience.)  You too, wise ass!

(He sits at the front edge of the table and dangles his legs.)

SHEPHERD    (He speaks very slowly.  He is weary and is speaking to himself, as though there is no audience.)  We figure that somehow the shadows will go away if we just exercise some willpower.  Just stand up straight all you American men, tall straight American women, tall straight pimply-faced kids from Jersey and Queens.  But shadows are lurking behind every privet hedge—behind us all.  If we had the guts to take a peek back maybe we’d see a giant gorilla or feel a clammy, hot, fetid breath of whatever it is behind and we’d look down into some kind of swirling vortex.  There’s a moment of combined—what is it?  Worry?  Concern?  Athlete’s foot?  We go back to the football game, the tuba playing and the cheerleaders.  For a brief moment there—(Though not singing, the rhythm reflects that of the song he quotes.) “that was a worrisome thing that will lead you to sing the blues in the night”—if not worse.  Yeah!

(He stands and faces the table, and with considerable effort, gets back onto it in a kneeling position, back still to the audience.)

SHEPHERD   (Subdued, he half sings the title of the song from the first scene.)  “Blues I Love to Sing.”  (He manages to stand, and turns and faces the audience, realizing that they are there.)  It’s nearly over for me—and for you.  Before you disperse out there into your own personal stygian darkness, listen to this.  Listen.  (He reaches down to his jacket on the table and pulls a small crumpled tatter of paper from the inside pocket and flattens it out, holding it up high with both arms outstretched, so he can see the audience under it.  He seems to gather strength.)  This is from one of my early shows—radio.  (He looks at the paper and reads it slowly, no longer weary, looking down at the audience from time to time.)  We’re all born butterflies.  Each one of us.  With these beautiful, magnificent wings ready to fly in the sunshine.  For those slow barrel rolls and loops.  And slowly, oh, ever so slowly, we burn those wings off—in flame.  And we wind up where we are now.  Me here.  You there.  Both of us eternally hitching, hitching a ride along the US4 of life.

(He nods his head in agreement.) 

SHEPHERD    He crumples the paper and tosses it away.  (Crumpling the paper, he tosses it away.)  Not to worry, folks, Shepherd isn’t serious—no tears now, madam.  He was just joking around—just making little funnies.  Cherish your illusions, folks—make ‘em work for you—what else ya got?  “In hoc agricola conc” he says enigmatically.

(He raises his arms like an orchestra conductor, turns for a moment to the engineers’ window and gives a start sign, then faces the audience again.)

SHEPHERD    (Speaking loudly.)  Bring it up big!

(He gives the downbeat and his theme, “Bahn Frei,” comes on loud.  He scats along and plays a bit of kazoo through its entire two-minute length, his arms waving, conducting energetically all the way to the triumphant, bombastic finale.  He bows deeply to the audience and the spotlight fades out to darkness.)

The End.

play cover 2



(NOTE: I consider the above play and all other blog  material posted by me to be my personal property, and as such, to be within my exclusive rights to republish at my sole discretion. I expect that there is a book in there somewhere. Stay tuned for more  goodies from the world of Jean Shepherd.)


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