Martha Patterson writes poetry, plays, fiction, and essays. Her work has been published by Smith & Kraus, Applause Books, the Sheepshead Review, Silver Birch Press, and others. She has degrees from Mt. Holyoke College and Emerson College, and lives in Boston, Massachusetts. She loves being surrounded by her books, radio, and laptop.
The play is about a real painter who was born in Austria in 1883.
SCENE: An artist’s studio in Vienna TIME: November 1908
SYNOPSIS: A mentally ill painter contemplates suicide.
AT RISE: Richard Gerstl, 25, is standing in front of a large canvas on an easel, which is turned away from the audience so that we cannot see the painting he is working on. He has short, dark hair. He is tall and shirtless, and wears black pants with a brown cord wrapped around the waist. He holds brushes and uses them to gesture as he speaks. There is a coil of thick rope laid on the floor and a large mirror hanging on the wall. On a side table are a pitcher of water and a glass, from which he drinks during the monologue. He is animated but also shows signs of melancholy.
RICHARD (Laughs to himself.)
I used to look at myself in a mirror, naked, after a bath, and wonder, “What is this strange fruit dangling between my legs?” Protuberant, bulbous even, of a vicious color, as notable as my face, and as repulsive, perhaps. Only seen less.
(He steps to the side and pours himself a glass of water and drinks from it. Suddenly he is solemn.)
My friends, a couple, used to live in the same building as I. Arnold Schoenberg is a composer, a very talented one, whom I enjoyed instructing in art. He loves music; I the canvas and the brush. But I loathe pretension; I loathe sycophants, and I do not associate with other painters. I have been called moody and silent. When I refused to take part in a procession for the Emperor, I was ostracized. I am an outcast of sorts. Nevertheless, I became close to Arnold. But I was closer to his wife.
(He sets the brushes and glass of water down.)
Mathilde! What a woman! Full of camaraderie, independent, a good subject for my paintings, and with a passion for living in the present. She left Arnold to be with me in Vienna for several days. And then the affair continued. She had a lovely figure. How I miss her today!
Did I feel guilty for betraying my friend? Not quite. She liked me, you see, and no one deserves love better than an artist who is down on his luck. As I consider myself to be.
(He lies down on the floor center stage, and is lost in memory. He lets his hands stray over his own body.)
I am with her…she is touching me. We have stripped each other of our garments. She runs her hand along my spine, along my throat. She is slender and has breasts like two small moons that feel cool in my hands. Her nipples are pink like budding peonies. She is charming to behold.
I take her hand and place it between my legs. I throb with excitement, thinking I will soon penetrate her wetness and we will both be satisfied. We will moan with pleasure and celebrate our oneness. She is with ME – she chose to be with this outcast, this common snake, this viper, this excuse for a friend. And I am happy.
(He sits up suddenly.)
But it ended. Mathilde returned to Arnold – I don’t know why. Perhaps she felt she owed him something; Arnold dedicated his music to her. In any case, she could not have loved me any longer. And he forgave her and took her back into his life. I was shunned for the affair with Mathilde, as well, in addition to already being thought of as unsociable.
(He runs his hands through his hair.)
Perhaps I myself am a strange piece of fruit, a ripe “something-or-other” from another continent, from an African jungle. My genitals betrayed me. I never married, but I took my friend’s wife for my own. And I am unwelcome in most circles of society.
My life is a waste! Face facts, Richard Gerstl! You have wasted the friendship of good people!
(He drinks again from the glass of water, then spits some of it out onto the floor.)
Bah! Now I only have letters from them, which I want to burn. I have never had an exhibition of my work anywhere. I am lost! I shall hang myself! I will. I shall stab myself with a knife from the kitchen, then hang myself from this rope attached to the rafters, and I will do it in front of this mirror.
(He kicks the coil of rope on the floor with his foot, and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. He picks up the end of the rope and begins twisting it into a noose.)
Am I a narcissist? Perhaps. A romantic? Most assuredly. I wanted to live with enthusiasm, with ardor and zeal; now I want to die the same way.
(He looks down at his own groin.)
Strange fruit. My penis, that has entered Mathilde so many times and given her such delight, and my testicles, with the promise of providing me with offspring – but I shall have none. I shall die bereft of heirs and without the knowledge that my art, even, will survive me. And Mathilde – that dainty specimen of womanhood, that cross of mine to bear, that elegant flower of spring – how she will miss me, after I am found swinging from a rope!
(Holding the noose, he folds his arms across his chest.)
I am 25 years old. My name is Richard Gerstl. I am a Viennese painter.
(Lights go down.)
From the Editor:
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