Unlike other of my texts for a cabinet theatre, this scenario is a wordless, poetic drama intended for video production. Its action is of a woman on the verge of death and owes much to Eva Figes’ short novel Waking and several of Emily Dickinson’s eschatological poems (found, as reference for the filmmaker, at the end of this scenario). Ideally, the film will be projected into an intimate black-box – the cabinet theatre – framed by a traditional proscenium arch to underscore its theatricality.
An old woman at the instant of her death and a little while afterwards, as described in the Scenario, below.
All is suffused by a uniform white light. The photographic effect will alter, about midway through the staging of this brief and intimate drama, into a negative, or color-reversed, flow of images – ultimately changing to gold. A white spot light as cued. Ceiling projections of cloud cover and of the ocean, also as cued.
A neutral space, empty except for a bed. The bed is plain, the sheet and pillowcase white. The walls of the space are light gray, tending nearly to white. So, too, the floor and ceiling. The space refers to a bedroom in which the woman lies dying. At one side, is a high and narrow window, whose plain unadorned sash frames the glass severely. The sash is painted a darker gray – its presence, for all its austerity, is powerful. Outside the window, the space is identical to the room’s almost colorless, featureless atmosphere (except, of course, for the bed). A transparency felt as air rather than emptiness.
The woman lying on her back, in bed. Her body, motionless, her face still: a gray mask expressive of – not pain, but immense weariness. The white sheet covers her so that only the face and throat are seen, framed by gray but surprisingly long hair. She gazes at the ceiling. The gaze, in its intensity, is the sole sign of life – so great her exhaustion. Life, however its fires are banked, remains yet and for a little while longer in her eyes.
The camera dwells on the ceiling. We see by it the intensity of the old woman’s gaze as she looks upward. The camera seems now, insistently, to probe the ceiling as if to dissolve it in order to look – so that the woman may look, by a last act of will – into its depths.
After some moments of this probing, the ceiling does dissolve – into clouds, thick and moiling. The transition from ceiling to clouds must be seamless. (Perhaps an image of smoke, the same color as the clouds and ceiling, intervenes in aid of the transition.)
A fly, unseen at first, is heard. Its buzzing seems to have no single source, but is general throughout the space. The camera leaves the ceiling for the window and discovers the fly. The window quickly darkens; the room empties of light. Quickly, the camera returns to the ceiling to probe its depths, but the darkness – now absolute – resists it.
The woman sighs once, profoundly. The window is smashed. The sound precedes the image to give the camera time to leave the ceiling and capture, in slow motion, the shower of glass into the room. A white spot light illuminates the flying glass and shards fallen onto the floor – but not onto the bed, which is, in its whiteness, inviolate. The positive image lasts only as long as it takes for the spectator to understand the catastrophe, before changing to a negative (essentially black-and-white) sequence of images. The noise of the fly, which has been persistent since its introduction, abruptly ceases.
The camera slowly observes the floor with its fragments of glass, the broken window, the bed, and the dead woman lying motionless under the sheet. Finally, the camera returns to the ceiling, which has again dissolved into a dense cloud cover. (All continues to be seen in negative images.)
We hear, as though from a very long way off, the sound of oars’ rowing.
The negatively imaged ceiling of moiling clouds gradually becomes the ocean. The camera struggles to probe beneath its agitated surface while the sound of rowing slowly increases and with it, though fainter, the sound of the ocean. Although the woman does not open her eyes, we sense – when the camera leaves the ocean above her to study her face – that she strains, in her immobility, to hear the oars steadily, rhythmically working in the oarlocks.
We, in our turn, now sense that the boat is near. (It will remain unseen, however.) The negative, essentially black-and-white images become, in an instant, gold. The ocean is gold – its sound, overwhelming. The woman on her bed is seen entirely in this same gold light. The light at the window is identical while the sun, with the measured slowness of a royal progress, swims through the window into the room.
All turns to a uniform golden radiance where nothing can be seen but it. This final image persists a while, then all is black and silent.
[End of Video]
Endnote (Emily Dickinson poems for reference):
Ample make this bed. / Make this bed with awe; / In it wait till judgment break / Excellent and fair. //
Be its mattress straight, / Be its pillow round; / Let no sunrise yellow noise / Interrupt this ground.
Departed to the judgment, / A mighty afternoon; / Great clouds like ushers leaning, / Creation looking on. //
The flesh surrendered, cancelled, / The bodiless begun; / Two worlds, like audiences, disperse / And leave the soul alone.
I heard a fly buzz when I died; / The stillness round my form / Was like the stillness in the air / Between the heaves of storm. / The eyes beside had wrung them dry, / And breaths were gathering sure / For that last onset, when the king / Be witnessed in his power. // I willed my keepsakes, signed away / What portion of me I / Could make assignable, – and then / There interposed a fly, // With blue uncertain, stumbling buzz, / Between the light and me; / And then the windows failed, and then / I could not see to see.
Because I could not stop for Death, / He kindly stopped for me; / The carriage held but just ourselves / And Immortality. // We slowly drove, he knew no haste, / And I had put away / My labor, and my leisure too, / For his civility. // …. [For her carriage, I have substituted the rowboat favored by Eva Figes and by my own personal mythology.]
Norman Lock’s newest book is Love Among the Particles, stories published by Bellevue Literary Press, New York City. His newest play, The Monster in Winter, has just been translated into German by Per Lauke Verlag. His newest radio drama, Mounting Panic, was recently produced in Germany by WDR. Lock won The Paris Review’s Aga Kahn Prize (1979) and fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (2009), the New Jersey Council on the Art (1999, 2013), and the National Endowment for the Arts (2011). His work has been translated into Dutch, German, Turkish, Japanese, and Spanish. He lives in the U.S.