Goldberg Variations: a 10 min. play

goldberg variations

IN THE BLACK, we hear J.S. Bach’s Aria BWV 988 arranged for classical guitar by Jozsef Eotvos.

LIGHTS UP on PROFESSOR R in a white lab coat, rubber gloves, and protective goggles, making loving adjustments to a rough  approximation of a Rube Goldberg machine –ie an assortment of items in absurd causal sequence, as in the cartoonist’s work.

For our purpose, it needn’t be a functional prop, but a series of related items of interest that merely suggest the machinery. A few items in series are referenced in the tex: A foot suspended is suspended vertically. At its toe, a small pyramid of beer cans, on a level above a child’s plastic beach pail. A small birdcage is adjacent,silloutted against a window-shade. A microphone attached by wires to a hamster cage with a treadmill, with a treadle connected to a tennis racket, suspended horizontally, set to hit a tennis ball, suspended from a string.

Some items, yet to be added to the model, lie in a crate to one side. They needn’t be practical props, just oddities.
an old vacuum cleaner, a bowling ball, whatever. The crate sits on a carpeted of oversized blueprint.

PROFESSOR refers to the oversize blue print, then grabs a boot from the crate and holds it up to the foot for fit.

PROFESSOR R:
Yes, yes! Cowboy boot kicks the beer can, which clatters into the plastic trash pail, which lifts the blind and startles the parrot, who squacks. Devilishly clever, Goldberg. They laughed at you, but it’s sheer genius. The only difficulty is, where to obtain a parrot?

He goes to the computer, types seven characters, and hits enter. He manipulates the mouse as indicated.

Click. Click. “Your source for exotic birds in the Midwest.” Click, click. Click, click, click. “Squack.” Then the parrot’s squack is picked up by the microphone, which transforms the signal into a series of—

MRS. R: (off)
Darling?

PROFESSOR R:
Oh no!

PROFESSOR R hurriedly throws a sheet over the part of the contraption with the hamster and tennis racket.

MRS. R: (off)
Dearest, are you home?

PROFESSOR R:
In the work-shop.

MRS. R enters. She looks like she’s been out to quite an elegant evening. There’s a sense of it being a tad overdone, her night at the opera.

MRS: R:
What are you doing in the basement— er, workshop?

PROFESSOR R:
Barbara! You’re home early. How was the symphony?

MRS. R:
It was Bach. Tedious. But I sat with the Lattimores, in their private box. Ellen Lattimore has persuaded Hank to give as much as a hundred thousand dollars to the Fund, but he actually thought it would work best as a matching gift with him getting some of his contacts at the foundation— Have you been at the internet again?

PROFESSOR R:
Just tonight.

MRS. R:
All evening?

PROFESSOR R:
No. You can check my history. I just logged on, just before you got home. Just browsing.

MRS. R:
You know what Dr. Kassner said about the internet: Not Healthy, Owen. Not healthy. Dangerous. Moderation. Nothing in excess.

PROFESSOR R:
I know.

MRS. R:
What’s this?

PROFESSOR R:
Nothing.

MRS. R examines the screen.

MRS. R:
Exotic … birds?

PROFESSOR R:
It’s nothing.

MRS. R:
“Mr. Micawber”? “Polly McCrackers”?

PROFESSOR R:
I was looking for someone to talk to.

MRS. R:
These are expensive.

PROFESSOR R:
Turns out talk isn’t cheap.

MRS. R:
Very funny, but pets can’t understand you, Owen. They just repeat what you say back to you. You know what Dr. Kassner says about authentic communication.

PROESSOR R:
Two-way street? Double-edged sword? Mutually assured destruction!

MRS. R:
Very amusing, if your tastes run to such humor. Your sense of humor seems oddly misplaced,
these days, I must say.

PROFESSOR R:
Dr. Kassner says he’s surprised I still have a sense of humor.

MRS. R:
Your own private little coping mechanism, hm?

PROFESSOR R:
Like the opera? Or the bloody fund?

MRS. R:
Don’t be cruel, Owen. The Lattimores are giving more than a hundred thousand dollars to Loren’s fund. Perhaps as much as two hundred thousand. That’s a significant contribution toward a real and lasting memorial to our daughter.

PROFESSOR R:
I didn’t mean to be cruel.

MRS. R:
That’s my coping mechanism.

PROFESSOR R:
I just thought that a pet bird would—

MRS R:
Wasn’t the hamster enough?

PROFESSOR R:
The doctor said a pet might help.

MRS R:
It’s part of the psychosis, Owen.

PROFESSOR:
I don’t understand.

MRS. R:
The hamster, because Loren had a hamster at school.

PROFESSOR R:
I don’t remember that.

MRS. R:
She wrote home about it.

PROFESSOR R:
I don’t remember reading that.

MRS. R:
When she was at school.

PROFESSOR:
Perhaps it was redacted?

MRS. R:
What?

PROFESSOR R:
That headmaster was pretty strict. There it is again.

MRS. R:
Your coping mechanism. It proves I’m right about the hamster

MRS. R looks at him disapprovingly, inspects
the machine, partly draped in sheet.

MRS. R:
What are you working on now?

PROFESSOR R:
Oh, nothing especially. Tinkering.

MRS. R:
Tinkering.

PROFESSOR R:
Well, you know what Dr. Kassner said. It’s good therapy. Tinkering.

MRS. R:
Tinkering. This is another of your inventions, isn’t it? Is it?

PROFESSOR R:
No.

MRS. R:
Because you know what Dr. Kassner said about those.

PROFESSOR R:
Yes.

MRS. R:
This obsession with the workshop.

PROFESSOR R:
The workshop is good for me.

MRS. R:
But these “inventions,” I mean.

PROFESSOR R:
But that’s what I am. An inventor. I hold patents.

MRS. R:
Yes, yes. Holder of twenty-two patents for medical devices. Two-times nominated for the
Nobel Prize in Medicine. But you know what Dr. Kassner said about these absurd obsessions. The Water Engine. The Perpetual Motion Machine. You’re projecting some kind of impossible task on yourself. To punish yourself for not saving Loren. You invent something that can never be invented.

PROFESSOR R:
This isn’t an invention. It’s an art project. Purposeless. That’s alright. Even Kassner says so.

MRS. R:
Only if you’re not obsessing. Owen, are you obsessing?

PROFESSOR R:
No.

MRS. R:
What is this?

PROFESSOR R:
My art project.

MRS. R:
It looks like an invention.

PROFESSOR R:
It does. But it’s not. It’s art.

MRS. R:
Where did you get that foot?

PROFESSOR R:
I sawed it off a mannequin. And I drank all that beer. The foot kicks them into the pail.

MRS. R:
How peculiar.

PROFESSOR R:
Etcetera, etcetera. It’s a Rube Goldberg machine. He was an old-time cartoonist, back at the beginning of the last century, and he designed these absurd contraptions.

MRS. R:
A cartoonist.

PROFESSOR R:
On paper. And what I’m doing is building one. Just for the hell of it. It’s art. It’s not really an invention. I mean, it’s not practical. And I know that.

MRS. R:
I’d say that’s almost the definition of art. Honestly, Owen, it seems a bit contrived, but Dr. Kassner has advised me that some project, any project, would be therapeutic for you. Just not the inventions. I do wish you would involve yourself with Loren’s fund. We could
do so much good in her name.

PROFESSOR R:
Dr. Kassner says that’s your mechanism, not mine.

MRS. R notices the boot in the crate.

MRS. R:
Is this one of Loren’s riding boots?

PROFESSOR R:
No. We threw hers out.

MRS. R looks examines the boot, sure it’s Loren’s.

MRS. R:
We agreed it was healthier to divest ourselves of the keepsakes.

PROFESSOR R:
Yes, yes.

MRS. R;
Remember what Dr. Kassner said.

PROFESSOR R:
What Kassner said, yes.

MRS. R notices the tennis racket.

MRS. R:
The tennis racket.

PROFESSOR R:
What of it?

MRS. R:
The one she got from the Make-A-Wish people?

PROFESSOR R:
This isn’t the same one.

MRS. R:
It looks just like it.

PROFESSOR R:
No Stephie Graf autograph.

MRS. R:
It was Martina Navratolovna, and you know it.

PROFESSOR R:
It didn’t even fetch that much at auction.

MRS. R:
Every little bit helped.

PROFESSOR R:
We got more for her horse.

MRS. R:
All in a worthy cause.

PROFESSOR R:
Loren’s Fund.

MRS. R:
Yes.

MRS. R gingerly removes the sheet covering the hamster’s cage and wire treadmill.

MRS. R:
Have you at least been feeding the hamster?

PROFESSOR R:
It’s being well cared for.

MRS. R looks at the machine.

MRS. R:
What about the beer cans?

PROFESSOR R:
She used to drink from my beer. When she was a teenager. She thought I didn’t know.

MRS. R:
Oh. Dr. Kassner will want to know.

PROFESSOR R:
But my dear, it’s not an invention. I am under no delusion that it has any practical use.
It’s just art, Barbara.

MRS. R:
I still think Dr. Kassner will want to know about it, Owen.

PROFESSOR R:
Then tell Dr. Kassner. I don’t expect it to work. I don’t expect anything to work. I don’t think
my twenty-two medical patents mean a thing. I don’t want a Nobel Prize. I don’t want any part
of your wretched fund. I don’t interfere with it, if that’s what you want to do with our money.
I just don’t expect it to work. All I ask is to be let alone to work on my projects. And I no longer
expect them to work.

MRS. R:
It’s not healthy, Owen.

PROFESSOR R:
I’m not hurting anybody.

MRS. R:
It’s not helping.

PROFESSOR R:
We’ll let Dr. Kassner decide.

PROFESSOR returns to tinkering with his machinery. MRS. R regards him with a mixture of old pity and
new concern, then exits as she came. MUSIC as before. PROFESSOR tinkers with his machinery as
LIGHTS FADE TO BLACK. END OF PLAY.

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