The Verge of Strife by Nick Baldock

This Play is the copyright of the Author and must NOT be Performed without the Author's PRIOR consent

(A lovely English meadow. Quiet, calm, peaceful. Then, into this calm, comes the Last Post. As it plays, the light gets brighter and brighter, almost unbearably so, as the notes die away. There is a brief moment of silence, then a voice)

VOICE #1: I speak of Arms and the Man.

(Blackout. Then a male voice. Possibly projections, or hints, of white crosses. Very faintly, 'I Vow To Thee, My Country' is sung OFF)

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori

(and a young offstage tenor sings the final verse)

And there's another country, I've heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

(as this dies away, speaks the voice of Frances Cornford, nee Darwin)

A young Apollo, golden-haired,
Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,
Magnificently unprepared
For the long littleness of life.

(and onto the stage, quite alone, steps Rupert Brooke)

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!
Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there's no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart's long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.

(Throughout, various figures act as a sort of Greek Chorus. Firstly we see Edward Marsh -)

MARSH: The first time I saw Rupert was in 1906, November I think it was. An enterprising undergraduate was producing Eumenides at Christ's, and Rupert was playing the Herald. I didn't know who he was, of course; I just thought he was like a page in the Riccardi Chapel.

(various bodies are arranging themselves for Comus, or possibly Eumenides, possibly it doesn't matter. Jacques Raverat appears in his role as director / organiser)

JACQUES: (claps hands) All right, thank you, everybody, herald and attendants in five minutes, please, herald and attendants. Thank you (exits, to be replaced by RB and Gwen Darwin, who is fiddling with his hair).

BROOKE: Stop it – stop it, Gwen. I need to look Greek, but I do not need to look epicene.

GWEN: It's not falling properly, Rupert.

BROOKE: Why must it fall properly? Why this obsession with descent?

GWEN: It has to look natural.

BROOKE: Then why can't it be left to its own devices? That would surely be natural.

GWEN: (attempting to fuss with it) It has to look natural, not be natural. (impatiently) It's like poetry, Rupert. Oh (addresses fellow spirit), Frances, come and help, he won't listen to me.

FRANCES: Rupert. Do you want to look beautiful, or do you not?

BROOKE: Frances, I will look beautiful whatever you do with my hair.

FRANCES: (tuts) But all the women in the audience will pay no attention to what you're saying, because they'll be regretting that you haven't arranged your hair.

BROOKE: (sighs dramatically) This monstrous regiment of women... you're all like my mother. Very well, harpies, do your worst (assumes pose of incipient martyrdom).

FRANCES: Now, Rupert, turn your head upside-down.

BROOKE: (surprised) Excuse me?

FRANCES: Like this (she leans backwards, and then with a practiced motion flips forward so that her hair cascades in front of her face, and she can run her fingers through it. RB looks a bit dubious).

GWEN: Go on, Rupert.

BROOKE: How will this help?

GWEN: Don't argue.

BROOKE: You're a very bossy woman and you'll make a very bossy wife.

GWEN: Husbands are always grateful for bossy wives (she glares at him as FC straightens).

BROOKE: Oh, very well (he mimics the action, ricking his neck slightly, and the women pounce upon his hair).

GWEN: Hold still.

FRANCES: It's a great shame that you never had a sister.

BROOKE: (straightening) That is distinctly a matter of opinion.

GWEN: (more kindly) And now, Rupert, if you just run your fingers through your hair like this... (she demonstrates and he follows suit) there! (he looks dubious but they are admiring)

BROOKE: Really?

FRANCES: Oh, yes (JR re-appears).

JACQUES: What are you doing with my herald?

GWEN: Beautifying.

JACQUES: (impatiently) It's called an audi-ence because it has come to listen, not to look.

GWEN: Of course, dear.

JACQUES: He looked perfectly adequate as he was.

BROOKE: Jacques, why would you settle for adequate when you have glorious within your grasp?

JACQUES: Your job is to act, Rupert. Not to pose. Five minutes (exits).

(to the world in general) How extraordinary that he thinks I don't know the difference.

(spotlight on a Chorus figure, in real life Henry James -)

CHORUS: Rupert expressed us all, at the highest tide of our actuality.

(and we move on to August 1907. RB enters, slightly drunk, and addresses the moon)

Sleeping Out: Full Moon

They sleep within. . . .
I cower to the earth, I waking, I only.
High and cold thou dreamest, O queen, high-dreaming and lonely.

We have slept too long, who can hardly win
The white one flame, and the night-long crying;
The viewless passers; the world's low sighing
With desire, with yearning,
To the fire unburning,
To the heatless fire, to the flameless ecstasy! . .

Helpless I lie.
And around me the feet of thy watchers tread.
There is a rumour and a radiance of wings above my head,
An intolerable radiance of wings. . .

All the earth grows fire,
White lips of desire
Brushing cool on the forehead, croon slumbrous things.
Earth fades; and the air is thrilled with ways,
Dewy paths full of comfort. And radiant bands,

(Geoffrey Keynes enters, carrying a bottle)

The gracious presence of friendly hands,
Help the blind one, the glad one, who stumbles and strays,
Stretching wavering hands, up, up, through the praise

Of a myriad silver trumpets, through cries,
To all glory, to all gladness, to the infinite height,
To the gracious, the unmoving, the mother eyes,
And the laughter, and the lips, of light.

KEYNES: Rupert (RB looks up). You're drunk.

BROOKE: Of course I'm drunk. It's the only possible course of action.

KEYNES: (smiling) This is no way to celebrate your birthday.

BROOKE: It's the only way. I am now in the depths of despondency because of my age. I am filled with a hysterical despair to think of fifty dull years more. I hate myself and everyone (GK laughs).

KEYNES: I don't think being maudlin suits you, Rupert.

BROOKE: Everyone except Lascelles.

KEYNES: (surprised) Charlie Lascelles?

BROOKE: Certainly. The Poor Law shall always be with us, but he shall not.

KEYNES: (nervously jovial) Ah, I sense the influence of St John Lucas.

BROOKE: The Greeks, Geoffrey. Always the Greeks. And Lascelles understands about the Greeks (fishes in his pocket). He gave me this photograph. I shall take it to King's.

KEYNES: (rather inadequately) What a charming portrait?

BROOKE: (sighs) Geoffrey; you are a fine fellow, but there is little poetry in your soul. I suppose this is the baleful influence of a household where oeconomics is regarded as a suitable topic for conversation.

KEYNES: (mildly) You can discuss Poor Law Reform with the best of them, Rupert.

BROOKE: Ah, Geoffrey. Even more than yourself, I attempt to be all things to all men. There are advantages to being a hypocrite. And, when I discuss Poor Law Reform, I do so from the point of view of the Greeks (pause). You have distracted me from the question. What will people say when they see (brandishes photo) this? (very brief pause) They will say, this is a portrait of Youth.

KEYNES: Will they? Yes. They will.

BROOKE: Now I'm in my third decade. It's a tragedy.

KEYNES: It can't be a tragedy, Rupert. The passage of time isn't a tragedy.

BROOKE: Isn't it? Before the age of 25, Geoffrey, you pull the world to pieces. After 25, the world pulls you to pieces. If that's not a tragedy, I don't know what is.

KEYNES: (with a slight sadness) Well; you still have another five years.

BROOKE: And the world will know about it.

(Enter two Edwardian scholars, obviously aesthetes)

SCHOLAR #1: Of course, Brooke likes to be considered conventionally unconventional, but did you know he was a Housemaster at Rugby?

SCHOLAR #2: Was he really?

SCHOLAR #1: Oh yes. He took charge of the House for a term when his father died.

SCHOLAR #2: Dear me. Did the whole place dissolve into libertine anarchy?

SCHOLAR #1: (a little regretfully) Much the same, they tell me. Although (twinkles) I’m told that he thought his job was 'to prepare the boys for confirmation and turn a blind eye to sodomy.'

SCHOLAR #2: (laughs) Here, of course, vice is most definitely versa.

SCHOLAR #1: Especially (gestures) at King’s. And especially among the Apostles…

SCHOLAR #2: (counts them off) Strachey major, Strachey minor, Forster, Keynes, dear Eddie Marsh...

SCHOLAR #1: And Brooke is now an embryo. Because of his intellect, naturally.

SCHOLAR #2: I’m sure his intellect will also be welcome (exeunt, chuckling in a slightly unpleasant manner).

The Beginning

(RB is standing surveying the Alps. It is Andermatt, Christmas 1907, although strictly speaking the audience needn't know this)

Some day I shall rise and leave my friends
And seek you again through the world’s far ends,
You whom I found so fair
(Touch of your hands and smell of your hair!),
My only god in the days that were.
My eager feet shall find you again,
Though the sullen years and the mark of pain
Have changed you wholly; for I shall know
(How could I forget having loved you so?),
In the sad half-light of evening,
The face that was all my sunrising.

(about here, Ka Cox comes and stands next to him. He is aware of her but doesn't acknowledge her presence)

So then at the ends of the earth I’ll stand
And hold you fiercely by either hand,
And seeing your age and ashen hair
I’ll curse the thing that once you were,
Because it is changed and pale and old
(Lips that were scarlet, hair that was gold!),
And I loved you before you were old and wise,
When the flame of youth was strong in your eyes,

(finally turns to her)

—And my heart is sick with memories.

KA: Is it, already?

BROOKE: Did you not hear all of the poem?

KA: Did you intend it to be heard, or are you the sort of poet who addresses his work to Nature?

BROOKE: (thoughtfully) You don't look like a critic.

KA: That's unfortunate, because you look exactly like a poet.

BROOKE: (suspecting irony) That's fortunate, because I hadn't made a particular effort.

KA: Perhaps your reputation precedes you.

BROOKE: I should hope so.

KA: Everywhere one goes, one hears Rupert Brooke in spirit. It's almost a surprise to hear him in person.

BROOKE: Not an anti-climax, I hope?

KA: Not yet (pause).

BROOKE: You have the advantage of me, as you appear to know who I am but I haven't yet had the pleasure.

KA: (smiles) You have seen me across a crowded room, but I think I can forgive you for not noticing.

BROOKE: That's very gracious of you. I'm not sure I can forgive myself.

KA: Don't be too concerned.

BROOKE: (looks more intently) A crowded room... are you a Newnhamite? Or a Girton scholar?

KA: Newnham. Although the crowded room was in the possession of the Fabian Society.

BROOKE: (light is dawning, although not so quickly as he pretends) Of course. One of the new breed.

KA: (helping him out, extending her hand) Katherine Cox. Newnham. My friends call me Ka.

BROOKE: (they shake hands) And are you here with your friends?

KA: (looks upstage) Some of my friends are here; some of the people here are my friends.

BROOKE: Do you know the Oliviers? Fellow Fabians.

KA: I've met them. Margery and Brynhild, and I believe there is a younger sister, whom they left at home.

BROOKE: Noël is the youngest. Her sisters tell me that she is the most beautiful, but that she cannot spell.

KA: (quite nicely) They are a charming family.

BROOKE: I'm sure your family is charming.

KA: We are not quite so grand as the Oliviers, but I think we have our moments.

BROOKE: (rather sweetly) We all have our moments. (lights go down and, when they return, Ka has gone and RB is removing his winter clothing whilst reciting -)


I think if you had loved me when I wanted;
If I'd looked up one day, and seen your eyes,
And found my wild sick blasphemous prayer granted,
And your brown face, that's full of pity and wise,
Flushed suddenly; the white godhead in new fear
Intolerably so struggling, and so shamed;
Most holy and far, if you'd come all too near,
If earth had seen Earth's lordliest wild limbs tamed,
Shaken, and trapped, and shivering, for MY touch --
Myself should I have slain? or that foul you?
But this the strange gods, who had given so much,
To have seen and known you, this they might not do.
One last shame's spared me, one black word's unspoken;
And I'm alone; and you have not awoken.

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