This play has elements of black comedy, the detective story and even the spy story, but the play is above all a tragedy. Everything that happens earlier has to be seen in the light of the climax of the play, which I claim is a very powerful one. The contrasting elements give it variety and a measure of suspense. Will the protagonist be hanged at 8a.m the next morning or not? Action seems to have been taken to ensure that he will not. And there's the further possibility of mistaken identity when the time comes to take him to the execution chamber. The events of the night before include reversal - the condemned man becomes the detective and some of the staff of the prison are suspects. There's also the murky, uncertain world of espionage. Which of the staff are agents, or double agents - of the British or the Germans? But despite all these things, events move inevitably to the tragic climax. Despite the digressions, the scheming and the false hopes, the life of the protagonist is drawn towards its end with the directness and simplicity of a falling stone.
A contemporary tragic protagonist surely cannot have the characteristics of a previous age. Peter, the protagonist in this play, certainly doesn't. But despite his obvious failings, he does have initiative, self-confidence, and that superiority over circumstances which was often manifest in the condemned at public executions: a refusal to conform to the meek behaviour expected of them. However, this is only his earlier response. As 8 a.m. draws closer, he has a human, not at all superhuman, response to his impending fate and finally, he is a tragic victim pure and simple, now inarticulate instead of very articulate, his sophistication stripped away, his humanity laid bare. The possibility is kept open that all the earlier events are purely psychological. A relevant comparison would be with the short story of O. Henry, 'Incident at Owl Creek,' which is about a man who seems to have escaped - but who is hanged. (The story was made into a memorable film.) In this play, the possibilities aren't resolved. Very different interpretations are possible.
What isn't open to interpretation is the opposition I show in this play to capital punishment and to religion, and specifically to the Church of England, the form of religion with which I'm most familiar. (I studied theology for a year.)
This, then, is amongst other things what I call a thesis play, a play which has a case to make, one which can be separated from the artistic aims of the play, but I differ from some opponents of religion in acknowledging - more than that, admiring - the strengths of so many religious people, and religious groups. Whether or not a person believes in the Christian God or another God is one aspect among many of their personality.
This anti-religious thesis should make the play of great contemporary relevance. Richard Dawkins' recent book opposing religion, 'The God Delusion,' has sold over a million copies. This is a topic which is attracting very great interest. However, I'm almost completely immune to considerations such as these. The case against the death penalty attracts the interest of a very small minority of people, but I see no necessary linkage between intrinsic importance on the one hand and prominence or popularity on the other. The play doesn't address the arguments against the death penalty but they do inform indirectly the dramatic action. I think that by the end of the play, members of the audience who have given little or no thought to these arguments will feel their power. And the death penalty has, of course, immense dramatic potential, which has received only a very inadequate treatment in the theatre so far, as, for example, in Brendan Behan's poor - I think - play about the events preceding the execution of 'The Quare Fellow.' My page on the death penalty.
This play isn't intended to be naturalistic. One reader emailed me to give the information that the procedure in the play is very different from the procedure followed before actual executions in this country. I was already aware of that. The differences are deliberate. The world of this particular condemned cell is surprising and grotesque. The concentration is on states of minds, as in expressionist theatre, rather than on faithful adherence to procedure. It wouldn't be a legitimate objection to Kafka's short story 'Metamorphosis' that a human could never be transformed into a giant insect, because insects breathe by means of tubes called tracheae, and the breathing system can only work if diffusion distances are short, so that a very large insect couldn't possibly respire.
Peter Morrison, the condemned man, talks to George and Jim, duty prison officers, about such matters as his poetry and the crossword (a means, along with cards and dominoes) of passing the time and taking his mind off his fate. Peter is revealed as well, educated, condescending, but capable of good humour. The prison officers apparently mean well but are limited.
The Chaplain enters and talks to Peter. He tries to give consolation, changing abruptly from a banal comparison between dying and visiting a foreign country to a traditional religious homily. Peter, as an unbeliever, takes issue with him. The Chaplain astounds Peter by agreeing with him.He is an atheist and has been given a warning by the Church authorities. Peter says that he would like the Chaplain's advice about the madness he has been pretending before the prison staff. He still hopes to avoid the death penalty by being declared insane. He puts on a typical performance before George and Jim but the Chaplain is unimpressed. He gives advice to Peter about how to act.
The Medical Officer enters. What help he offers is rejected by Peter. The Chaplain and Medical Officer then ignore Peter and talk about some of the condemned men who have occupied the cell before Peter. The Chaplain asks the Medical Officer questions about how exactly hanging causes death and when pressed about the technicalities, the Medical Officer becomes vague and flustered. Finally, he's compelled to admit that he's not a doctor at all and never went to Medical School. He and the Chaplain exit. Peter, now aware that people are not what they seem in this place, asks George and Jim whether they are something other than prison officers. They deny all the alternatives he suggests.
The Governor enters. Peter mentions his anxieties and complaints. The Governor is unsympathetic, and when the discussion turns to Peter's last breakfast, the Governor is uncooperative. The Governor exits.
George and Jim give an account of the Governor's personality which is in marked contrast to what has just been witnessed.They say that he's liked by staff and inmates alike, that he's kind and indulgent and bends the regulations.
Jean, Peter's wife, enters. She's allowed by George and Jim to sit on the bed next to Peter. Peter says to Jean that he has abandoned hope. Jean says that she can't stop long. Peter is disappointed but Jean explains that she must go to co--ordinate last minute efforts to secure a reprieve for him. They embrace and kiss. The Governor enters and is furious that they should be embracing, threatening that the two prison officers will lose their jobs. The Governor puts his arm around Jean. Peter is angry and accuses Jean of having an affair with the Governor but instantly apologizes. Having been threatened with disciplinary action, George and Jim reveal that others are not what they seem: the Chaplain doesn't believe in God and the Medical Officer isn't a doctor. The Governor is aware of the first claim, and accepts it, but denies the second. George points out something far more serious: the death of two prison officers. Peter claims that they may have been poisoned and that the Governor may have taken part. The Governor comes up with a plan to save Peter's life. A rehearsal is arranged. After a fight, Peter is taken next door to the execution chamber. The trap doors are heard opening with a crash.
Peter lies on the bed, unconscious. He awakens. The Governor tells him that he fell when the trap doors opened and hit his head. Peter becomes preoccupied by the death of the two prison officers. He forces all of them but Jean ('It's obvious that you can't possibly be a suspect') to line up, despite their protests. He announces the name of the suspect: the Chaplain, who is seized by George and Jim. A pen is forced into the Chaplain's mouth, so that he cannot close it. Peter extracts a cyanide capsule. He explains that the Chaplain is a German agent, planted in the cell to extract information from German agents awaiting execution. The Medical Officer is a British agent. The Medical Officer suggests that as the Chaplain is certain to be tried and hanged as a German agent, the executioner should hang him in the morning instead of Peter. The Chaplain is forced to surrender his clerical collar to Peter. Jean and Peter have pity on the Chaplain. They can't allow him to be hanged. The collar is given back. George points out a difficulty. The hangman comes to the spy hole during the evening to look at the condemned man's build. If he came whilst Peter was wearing the collar there will be complete confusion the next morning. He will not be sure who is to be hanged. Peter says that the risk is negligible and the Chaplain is handed over to the staff outside to be locked up. Jean, assured that the Governor's plan for saving Peter's life will be effective, exits, as does the Medical Officer.
The Governor and Peter talk. The Governor tells him that 'there was no need for 'amateur dramatics.' In view of Peter's important work in atomic physics. the decision had already been taken to spare his life, but not by a straightforward reprieve. He tells George and Jim to go next door, to the execution chamber, to do their work. Sounds are soon heard from the chamber. He tells Peter that they are British Intelligence agents. They are installing a tiny device which will make it impossible for the trap doors to open next morning. Another aspect of their work: they play cards or dominoes at almost every available opportunity. Games of cards are used to convey information about practicalities, the assassination of Gestapo members in occupied Europe, for example. The domino language enables agents and resistance workers to communicate about 'the fear of death, the fear of torture, isolation, crushing boredom, the abysses of the soul.' The domino language plays an increasingly important part as the play develops.
George and Jim return to the condemned cell. Peter says that the best guarantee that the device will work is for he himself to pull the lever whilst the others actually stand on the gallows in turn with the rope around their necks. After understandable hesitation, they all go into the execution chamber.
They return to the condemned cell. Peter is delighted. The others have done what he asked for and the device is completely effective. The Governor explains the executioner's particular preferences. For example, the white cap will be placed over Peter's head before going into the execution chamber. He exits.
The Governor enters and asks Peter if he would like a party to be held in the cell. He explains that at American executions, including the ones of American military personnel which are taking place in Somerset, the practices and customs are very different. It's usual for them to include a party the night before the execution, attended by the condemned. (A party of this kind is shown in the film 'The Executioner's Song,' based on the book by Norman Mailer about the execution of Gary Gilmore.) Peter is intrigued and agrees. The party starts almost immediately and Jean enters. Party hats are given out, a cake is brought in, and one candle is lit and placed on top of the cake. The atmosphere is relaxed as well as high-spirited. Now, George and Jim are revealed as not what they seemed. They are erudite, and give anecdotes about their time at university. There's conversation about Peter's work in German atomic physics immediately before the war. The Governor thought that German atomic research was very advanced. Peter lets slip that this was not so, and that the chances of Germany producing an atomic bomb before the end of the war are non-existent. The Governor seems very disturbed by this. Now, it seems, Peter has no information of any value to offer the authorities. It may be that there's no longer any clear reason to save his life. All exit but George, Jim and of course Peter. Before going, the Governor blows out the candle on the cake. Peter is horrified by this.
A siren sounds and bombing starts. Against the sound of near and distant explosions, the sound of anti-aircraft fire, Peter cries out. George and Jim continue to play dominoes.
The executioner enters - the Medical Officer! He is followed by the Chaplain, in robes, reading from the burial service of the Book of Common Prayer and the Governor. George and Jim advance on Peter. Despite all his struggles, Peter is shackled, the executioner places the white cap over his head, and he is dragged into the execution chamber. The crash of the trap doors opening is heard within a few seconds.
The play has a cast size of 7.
Dr Peter Morrison, the condemned man
Jean Morrison, his wife
George, a prison officer
Jim, a prison officer
The Medical Officer, who is also The Executioner. The participation of doctors in executions is cause for revulsion. Here, there is intensification by making the doctor himself the executioner. Initially, this was for reasons of dramatic economy - a separate part for an executioner, who is only present on stage for the last few minutes of the play, could not be justified, but to make the healer the killer is dramatically effective, I think.
(The condemned cell. A door heading to the execution chamber up centre. A door leading to a corridor left. Whenever a character enters or exits by this door, it is unlocked and locked again by a prison officer, who is never visible, in the corridor outside. A door leading to the toilet, left. Bed, down left. Table with three chairs up right. On the table are dominoes, playing cards and a copy of The Times newspaper. PETER MORRISON, under sentence of death, sitting in the centre chair, GEORGE, a prison officer, to his right, JIM, another prison officer, to his left. PETER is writing on a piece of paper, watched intently by the officers. He puts down his pen - which is chained to the table, like the pens for the use of customers in banks - and reads. His voice is commanding and confident.)
miss our friends and wives,
we'll feel lost without our lives.
Everything we had was tasteful, made to last.
Except our bodies - so distasteful, ruined so fast.
Do you like it?
GEORGE (with some warmth): Very good, Peter! It's a nice poem.
JIM (scowling slightly): It's a bit depressing. Can't you write about anything more cheerful?
PETER (contemptuously): A poet needs a cultivated public, he needs an audience who've got the bare minimum of taste. All I've got are you two. How did I get into this situation? I need my head examining, I really do.
GEORGE: The medical officer should be along soon, but I don't see how you can have picked up lice here. It's a very clean cell.
PETER: You're a nonentity.
GEORGE: I was just trying to be helpful.
PETER (looking for a moment at the door up centre): What's on the other side of that door there?
JIM (tensely): Would you like a game of cards?
PETER (very firmly): I asked you, what's behind that door?
GEORGE: Would you like a game of dominoes?
JIM (picking up the newspaper): Would you like to carry on with the crossword?
PETER (upset): No, I feel like a lie-down. (He gets up and walks over to the bed. He limps very badly. He lies down on his back. After a few moments he brightens up.) Read me the next clue.
JIM (reading very slowly and laboriously): 'Strange scion (He pronounces it 'SKY-on') of the nobility.' 5 letters.
PETER (laughing): It's pronounced 'scion, scion, scion, scion.' Say it a hundred times and I'll test you on it afterwards.
JIM (hesitating a moment, then speaking very uncomfortably): Scion, scion, scion, scion...
PETER: That's enough!
JIM (with some dignity): Do you know the answer?
PETER: I haven't a clue.
GEORGE: Come on, Mr Morrison, we know you can do it.
PETER: Dr Morrison.. Got it! Sci- is short for 'science' and scion is a young member of a family - the noble gases. You know them, don't you? Helium, neon, argon, krypton and so on. (He laughs, GEORGE and JIM laughing too.) You've heard of 'xenophobia?' I don't suppose you have. The answer's 'xenon,' another noble gas in the series. That's enough for now. We can finish the crossword off tomorrow evening.
GEORGE (in panic): But we can't!
PETER: Why not? (GEORGE and JIM do not answer.) Let me read you another poem I've written. It's much better.
transfixed them all,
as if they had fallen too,
or might fall next
into the darkness near at hand
pierced by his single call.
Into that darkness
led the rope that broke
his fall, and held.
The rope: the terror of falling's double check,
tied around either waist or neck.
What's it about?
GEORGE (tensely): A hanging?
PETER: And a mountaineer who falls but is saved...(savouring the phrase) saved from death...by the rope.
JIM (very anxiously): Don't you think it would help if we played cards or dominoes?
PETER: I've got this paper here. Let's have a game of hangman.
GEORGE (very tensely): You're too good for us, Peter. You know a lot more words. Let's play something else.
JIM: How about a game of noughts and crosses?
PETER (in disgust): Noughts and crosses! Haven't you got any sensitivity at all? I'm about to become a nothing, a nought, I'm going to be buried with a cross above my grave, and you can seriously suggest playing noughts and crosses!
GEORGE: Would you like a game of cards?
PETER: I never realized how tedious and boring it would be, waiting to be hanged. The tedious and boring little games, the complete lack of drama. It's like a boarding house on a cold, wet, windy summer's day.
(CHAPLAIN, wearing clerical collar, enters by door at left.)
PETER: Well, hello Charlie Chaplain!
CHAPLAIN (very offended): Charles, please.
(PETER gets up off the bed and limps towards him.) Come here and sit down. (He gives a wave of his hand to indicate where he should sit, on a chair. He returns to the bed and sits on it.)
CHAPLAIN: Thank you very much.
PETER: You're welcome. We'll just have a little talk about the soul and its eternal destiny. (Glancing in the direction of GEORGE and JIM) You have a game of dominoes, if you like (They begin playing.): I'm glad you've come now, rather than after the Medical Officer. It's going very badly. The M. O. is a natural sceptic. He's an obstacle to life and happiness, so far as I'm concerned.
CHAPLAIN: I don't see how he could help you, even if he was much more sympathetic.
PETER: I know he doesn't have a direct line to the Almighty, and in any case, the Home Secretary has already refused a reprieve, but still - the Home Secretary has changed his mind before now. Even after the thumbs down has been announced to the press, wretches who though they were as good as dead...
CHAPLAIN: I'm here to talk to you about spiritual matters, not the unimportant matters of the world. I want to talk about the eternal destiny of the soul, that phrase you used that showed me you were seeking Christian truth after all. Now, would you dream of setting out on a long journey without having the requisite vaccinations, without taking a phrase book or a tooth brush, without talking to those who know a great deal about the country you are planning to visit?
PETER (impatiently): If you feel you've got to earn your pay and give me some consolation, you'd be well advised to stick to a traditional approach. Talk if you like. I won't be listening. It will give me time to gather my thoughts together. I want your advice afterwards, though.
CHAPLAIN: (With an intense look.) There's no sinner beyond God's care. In the extremity of our suffering, we may be tempted to forget God, or even to doubt his existence, if our prayers and the prayers of those who love us seem to go unanswered. Our human nature is weak, it errs, it doubts, it wonders what part our suffering can possibly play in God's plan. But it is the universal testimony of the saints that when the soul cries out de profundis, supernatural grace is bestowed and makes good our deficiencies, if we will but accept it, and we are assured by the Church that suffering will not separate us from our ultimate happiness. It may, indeed, bring us closer to God, to the union with him of which the mystics speak. When we suffer, let us always remember that suffering and death have been conquered, by Christ Jesus on the cross. That, finally, is our assurance, the assurance that the Church of England has the privilege of ...
PETER: I listened to some of that. You're wrong. The Church and Christianity aren't the solution, they're part of the problem. Take capital punishment, for example. When I was sentenced to death, the Court Chaplain put the black cap on the judge's head and intoned an 'Amen.' He agreed with it all. Well, I think the world's in a bad state and we ought to blame the one who created the mess, if he exists. As for that better future state, I've a parable for you. An anti-Christian parable. Some newly arrested prisoners were flung into a cell. They could hear cries and screams and knew they could expect the same fate. One of the prisoners, a deeply religious man, tried to convert the others by telling them that although they could expect the most severe pain and suffering on earth, one day all their agony would be transformed into joy, if only they would have faith. Despite the ridicule of a sceptic, he was listened to with respect. That same night, the religious man was taken away for interrogation. The prisoners knew that it was the practice here to use two interrogators, one very brutal, one kinder, to confuse the prisoner and undermine his resistance. They were curious as to which of the two was interrogating the religious man. At dawn, he was brought back, beaten to a pulp. 'At least the ordeal's over for you now that you've faced the sadistic one,' a prisoner said. The religious man weakly told them that it was the more pleasant interrogator who had questioned him. The sceptic said 'Bad can become worse. Everything is permitted.' What do you think about this parable?
CHAPLAIN: I've a confession to make.
PETER: Shouldn't it be me making the confession? You know, the usual routine, boring things - thinking impure thoughts and what not. How priests put up with the drivel and the tedium I don't know. I almost feel sorry for them...
CHAPLAIN: I've got to confess - I'm not a believer myself.
PETER: Not a believer? You're joking!
CHAPLAIN: I never joke about matters of faith.
PETER: Are you certain?
CHAPLAIN: I'm certain. I've no faith.
PETER: I'm shocked. So you're an agnostic...
CHAPLAIN: An atheist. Do you think if I had faith I'd be working in a hell-hole like this? Talking to men who spill excrement and piss from their slop bucket? Watching men get dragged to the trap-door? If I had plenty of faith I'd be eating delicate sandwiches on sleek lawns, making polite conversation. I might even be a Bishop. But this is more or less my last chance. The Church authorities have given me a written warning about my lack of faith, ordering me to find some. Defrocking's the next step, if I'm not careful.
PETER: Well, old chap...
PETER: ...you did say you'd listen to me for a change.
CHAPLAIN: If I have to, Mr Morrison.
PETER: Dr Morrison. The Medical Officer has to make reports about my condition. If I can still manage to convince him that I'm insane, it could make all the difference. This isn't the Middle Ages! They don't hang lunatics any longer!
CHAPLAIN: What if the authorities are mad?
PETER: I only have control over my own madness. I want your advice. I can't decide if my displays of madness are convincing or not. I tend to be over-critical.
CHAPLAIN: Hang on a bit...oh, sorry about the phrase. The death watch ought to get the impression that I'm giving value for money. (With a glance in their direction, in a much louder voice.) I assure you, death is the beginning, the beginning of life. (The officers smile. His voice is quieter again.) I've got one basic criticism. As I understand it, you've been combining an obsession with the foot with mania of a religious type, together with silent, motionless phases. Is that right?
PETER: That' more or less it.
CHAPLAIN: True lunatics are more consistent than that, surely. Normal people have messy, chaotic, illogical lives. The lives of lunatics are single-minded, they have a kind of inner logic. Shouldn't your madness be more unified?
PETER: I don't think I know enough about psychiatry.
CHAPLAIN: It could be your downfall - literally.
PETER: I ought to have done more research before I committed the crime. Do you think there are any textbooks on psychiatry in the prison library? Could I borrow one without creating suspicion?
CHAPLAIN: It's a bit late for that, seeing that you're due to be hanged at 8 a.m.
PETER: Has anyone ever told you that you're not the most sensitive person in the world?
CHAPLAIN: I plead guilty to that one.
PETER: Back to my plan. I may already have convinced the Medical Officer that I'm insane. In that case, there's every chance that I won't be hanged. This is how I acted when the M.O. was here yesterday. The officers were different then, a different shift. These two haven't seen my performance yet.
CHAPLAIN: Go on, I'm watching.
PETER: First I have to fix these two with a long, cold stare. (He gets up from the bed and limps towards the officers, staring at them. They stop playing dominoes and look uncomfortable, but they seem to have heard all about his histrionics, since they look at him very critically.) My feet are evil! Fetch the Medical Officer! I demand to have them amputated! It hath been said, 'If thy foot offend thee, cut it off!'
JIM: Calm down, Peter, do calm down.
CHAPLAIN (after Peter has returned to his place.) You'd never make an actor. Terrible. Hopeless. Very crude. No subtlety at all.
PETER (distraught): You really think so?
CHAPLAIN: I do. As soon as you came into this cell, you ought to have insinuated gradually into their minds the notion that you'd lost your reason. Display histrionics more sparingly. But if you want to form a connection in their minds between foot madness and religious mania, you could use that verse about the Lord making of his enemies a footstool. I forget the exact words. I haven't studied the Bible since I was ordained.
(MEDICAL OFFICER enters, carrying his medical bag.. PETER looks dismayed, the CHAPLAIN smiles.)
MEDICAL OFFICER (briskly): Good evening, Morrison. I hear that you're very worried. That's only natural. I think you ought to have a sedative. (He opens his bag, takes out a battle and takes a large tablet out of the bottle.)
PETER (in disgust): You doctors are all the same! You always take the easy way out. Writing out prescriptions, handing out tablets. That's all you can do. Why don't you listen to your patients? Try and get to the root cause of their problems?
MEDICAL OFFICER (in matter of fact tones, as he sits down): I've already listened to a detailed account of your childhood, your university years, your research in atomic physics, your hobbies, interests, likes and dislikes. Have you anything more to add?
PETER: There was some information about my earlier childhood...
CHAPLAIN (as if bored): Tell me, doctor, do you agree with hanging?
MEDICAL OFFICER (looking at PETER): It has its uses. It's the duty of a doctor to save life, not to take it. All I do is to certify that death has taken place.
CHAPLAIN: Tell me a little about hanging. Is death instantaneous and certain? Is hanging invariably fatal?
MEDICAL OFFICER: It was rarely instantaneous until the long drop was brought in. When is a person dead? It's sometimes hard to say. But sooner or later, yes, hanging is fatal.
CHAPLAIN: I've noticed quite often that when you put the stethoscope to the chest, it can be quite a long time before you say, 'He's dead.' What exactly do you hear?
MEDICAL OFFICER: The heart continues beating for some time but the pulse is very irregular. It becomes fainter, then stops. It may be quite a long time before it stops, yes.
CHAPLAIN: I wonder if...do you remember young Fred, doctor? He was a fighter!
MEDICAL OFFICER: But only on the end of the rope. He was as meek as anything until then.
CHAPLAIN: Not as quiet as Harry.
MEDICAL OFFICER: Oh, you're right. Harry was the first one - the only one - to go from bed to dead in under 10 seconds. Phenomenal! Like running a hundred yards in under 10 seconds!
CHAPLAIN: You've got to remember, though, that the bed was over by the door then. That reduced the time by a couple of seconds. Wasn't Harry the innocent one?
MEDICAL OFFICER: No, that was David, the one before him.
CHAPLAIN: And the one before David was the Hangman's Century. Do you remember the presentation? There were tears in his eyes.
MEDICAL OFFICER: I do, I do. The gift was magnificent, a lovely piece of carving.
CHAPLAIN: A cigar box in the shape of a coffin. Do you remember the inscription?
MEDICAL OFFICER: It was inscribed, 'From one craftsman to another.'
CHAPLAIN: James was one of my favourites.
MEDICAL OFFICER: Why's that?
CHAPLAIN: He radiated a kind of unselfish goodness.
MEDICAL OFFICER: Tim is my particular favourite, for the same reason. I've never come across a more considerate teenager anywhere.
CHAPLAIN: Although the most endearing and touching was little Frankie, the one who used to cry for his mother.
MEDICAL OFFICER: Very touching, yes. Actually, he was an orphan. She wasn't his real mother.
CHAPLAIN: Wasn't she? I didn't know that. She was a marvellous woman. I don't think she can be finding life easy. She has six to look after, sorry, five now.
MEDICAL OFFICER: The poor dear.
CHAPLAIN: Some of the fathers have been really bad. I don't think you were here when Les's father came to visit him for the last time. The father was a drunkard, used to hit Les until his arm ached, but the boy talked to his father as if he worshipped the man. Before he was taken next door, he thanked the Governor for all the kindness that had been shown to him whilst he was with us.
MEDICAL OFFICER: Of course, most of them used to do that.
CHAPLAIN: It doesn't happen nearly as often now.
MEDICAL OFFICER: That's true. The working atmosphere in the cell isn't as pleasant as it used to be. When did the ungrateful ones begin to outnumber the grateful ones?
CHAPLAIN: It's hard to say. It's been a gradual process. I'm going by what I hear from other places as well as our experience here, but as a general rule, the intellectuals and artistic types, like our poet here (he looks at PETER), no offence meant, of course, they've always been worse than the others. Do you agree?
MEDICAL OFFICER: I think you're wrong to lump together the artistic intellectuals and the scientific intellectuals. You'll think I'm biased, I know, but the science side is better than the arts side. Like you, I go on what I've heard from other places as well.
CHAPLAIN: How do you classify Peter here? He's interested in science and the arts.
MEDICAL OFFICER: He's unclassifiable and just about certifiable, I'd say. Very unusual.
PETER (eagerly): Certifiable!
CHAPLAIN: He's unusual in being a physicist. There are far more in these places from the Biological sciences - taking that to include medicine - than from physics or chemistry or engineering or maths.
MEDICAL OFFICER: I hope you're not getting at me!
CHAPLAIN: You've got to admit, there are a fair number of doctors amongst the murderers. Sherlock Holmes said that when a doctor went wrong, he was a formidable murderer, because doctors have knowledge and nerve.
MEDICAL OFFICER: What do you think of the German spies? You remember Klaus, of course, the one who pointed to himself as proud as anything and said, 'I spy. I Hamburger.' Poor command of English.
CHAPLAIN: Of course. Let me call upon your expertise, though. How exactly does hanging cause death, doctor? Give us the technicalities.
MEDICAL OFFICER (hesitating): Well, the rope is tight around the neck, so the blood can't squeeze past it (he looks acutely embarrassed), or only some of it can. Before the long drop was brought in, back in the olden days, more blood could squeeze past...the heart is still pumping, but that blood can't get to the brain...
CHAPLAIN: At which point does ventricular fibrillation occur?
MEDICAL OFFICER (embarrassed): Oh, that doesn't take long!
CHAPLAIN: Is it the sinu-atrial node or the sinus venosus which is involved? (MEDICAL OFFICER does not answer) A simpler question. How many chambers does the heart have?
MEDICAL OFFICER: Oh, it's full of cells, too many to count.
CHAPLAIN: Cells like this one.
MEDICAL OFFICER: They're much smaller, obviously.
CHAPLAIN: Did you actually pass your medical examinations, doctor? (MEDICAL OFFICER does not answer. He hangs his head in shame.) Did you even go to medical school? (MEDICAL OFFICER does not answer.) You forged your degree certificates!
PETER: You doctored your certificates!
MEDICAL OFFICER: Yes.
CHAPLAIN: Let's go and have a quiet talk somewhere else, doctor. Come on!
(CHAPLAIN and MEDICAL OFFICER exit. PETER walks to the table and stands in front of GEORGE and JIM.)
PETER: You're not PhD's like me, by any chance?
GEORGE (Very perplexed): Oh no, Dr Morrison.
PETER: You're not mature students?
JIM (Very perplexed): No we're not, Dr Morrison.
PETER: You're not cryptographers or crystallographers.
GEORGE and JIM together: No!
PETER: Not ontologists or deontologists?
PETER: You're not theatre critics?
JIM: Definitely not!
PETER: You're just prison officers?
JIM: That's all. Just prison officers.
PETER: I'm so pleased. At least some things are what they seem.
(The GOVERNOR enters. PETER walks back to the bed, limping, and sits on it. The GOVERNOR picks up a chair and puts it next to the bed. He sits down. The officers do not resume their game of dominoes.)
PETER: Now then, Guv.
GOVERNOR (offended): Governor, please. How are things, Dr Morrison?
PETER: I'm very anxious, Governor.
GOVERNOR: What about? Anything in particular?
PETER: Well, the food's good here and I eat every morsel. I was weighed when I came here but I've put on weight since then. The hangman - he'll have worked out a drop for a weight which won't be the true one. The drop ought to be shorter. The drop will be too long and my head's liable to come off!
PETER: It does happen, you know it does. You bastards, why don't you use a guillotine and decapitate people the clean way?
GOVERNOR: You needn't have any fears.
PETER: This hangman - he's no intellectual, I'm certain. Has he studied the acceleration due to gravity? Has he studied the breaking strain of rope and human bone?
GOVERNOR: If there's nothing more I can do for you, I'll go.
PETER: You stay here.
GOVERNOR: As you wish.
PETER: As you wish! As you wish! The number of times I've heard that phrase here. It's like a good, old-fashioned hotel where nothing is too much trouble. The trouble is, when the time comes for me to pay my debt to society the cost is going to be ruinous! Well, I intend to walk out without paying.
GOVERNOR: I don't think so.
PETER: This hangman again. How long is the course in hanging? Six months? A year?
GOVERNOR: A week.
PETER: A week! Are there exams at the end of the week, theory and practical? Are there finals?
GOVERNOR: You really must learn to trust us more. We have very great experience in these matters.
PETER: I've languished here for nearly three weeks. I might just as well be in the dungeons of the inquisition, suffering the most exquisite tortures. Just get out, will you!
GOVERNOR: With pleasure. (He walks towards the door to exit but turns back.)
PETER: You want to apologize.
GOVERNOR: Not at all. It's just that I forgot to tell you - the kitchen staff have queried your breakfast for tomorrow morning.
PETER: I didn't ask for much.
GOVERNOR: True. You can have toast with butter but only one egg, not two. Wartime conditions, I'm afraid.
PETER: I take back what I said about this place being like a good, old-fashioned hotel. It's like a third-rate boarding house or a public school. I won't have a breakfast at all. I don't like the thought of a scummy pathologist cutting my stomach open and telling his assistant to take a look - this is interesting, you'll find this very intriguing - the man's last meal, not fully digested, you see - look at the bits of toast. Get out!
(GOVERNOR exits without replying.)
PETER (to GEORGE and JIM): I hate that man, and he hates me.
GEORGE: I can't understand it. He's one of the kindest men I've ever known.
JIM: I say the same. You're the only one who doesn't like him. All the staff like him. All the prisoners like him. Apart from you.
GEORGE: I don't know why he's severe with you. He's never been severe with the others.
JIM: We're only supposed to play cards or dominoes if you join in. This one, he doesn't mind at all.
GEORGE: Other governors insist the officers stand when they walk in. This one's much more relaxed.
JIM: I don't know why you couldn't have more than one egg.
GEORGE: The German spy had four! The other governors insist on the work being done as soon after eight as possible, and no later than a minute. This governor doesn't mind if the job starts at five past or ten past.
JIM: A quarter past, even.
GEORGE: That's the sort of man he is.
JIM: How he puts up with the Medical Officer, I don't know. The M.O. is supposed to go with the Governor and the Chaplain and the Executioner and the guest to the drop. This one doesn't. He says that it's boring having to wait there for the heart to stop beating. He likes to come along later, after half an hour to certify death.
GEORGE: And the Governor lets him!
[Section of the script under revision]
GOVERNOR: The Chaplain will be tried and hanged as a spy. We'll be seeing him in the cell again, as a guest.
PETER: Yes, of course
MEDICAL OFFICER: I've got an idea. As he's certain to be hanged anyway...
JEAN: If he's found guilty by a court.
MEDICAL OFFICER: That's certain. Why don't we give the Chaplain's clerical collar to Morrison, so that the executioner can hang the Chaplain instead tomorrow morning and Morrison can read the burial service on the way to the gallows. The hangman hasn't seen Morrison in person.
GOVERNOR: A very good idea.
JEAN: Peter, you're saved! I feel sorry for the Chaplain, I really do, but he hasn't a hope.
PETER: I wish I'd thought of that. Let's have the Chaplain's collar now. Oh, and I'll be needing that Book of Common Prayer too. (The CHAPLAIN struggles ineffectually. PETER takes the collar and puts it on and then prises the book from the hands of the CHAPLAIN. Many thanks. Or perhaps I should say, 'Danke schön.' I feel like a new man now. (The CHAPLAIN begins to cry softly. PETER and JEAN notice that he's crying, the others are unconcerned.)
JEAN: Peter, we've got to help him.
PETER: Let's have a little talk, Jean. (He goes over to JEAN and whispers in her ear. She whispers something back. She is close to tears. PETER addresses them all, hesitantly at first, then with increasing confidence.) Jean and I have agreed on this. It's no good. We can't let him be hanged in the morning. Here, have your collar and book back. (Takes off the collar and gives it with the book to the CHAPLAIN, who puts the collar back on.)
JEAN: We were thinking that there's no need to put the Chaplain on trial. He could make himself useful as a double agent, working for British Intelligence whilst pretending to work for the Germans.
MEDICAL OFFICER: A good idea, except for the fact that he might become a triple agent, only pretending to work for British Intelligence whilst pretending to work for the Germans but actually working for the Germans.
PETER: I think you could trust him. He'd only appear to be a triple agent. Actually, he'd be a quadruple agent, working for Britain.
MEDICAL OFFICER: There's a danger of him becoming a quintuple agent then.
JEAN: Let's get back to the most important thing - saving Peter. Governor, your plan for tomorrow had better work.
GOVERNOR: It will, have no fear.
GEORGE: Sir, there's a slight difficulty. We've forgotten that the hangman comes to the spy hole once during the evening before the hanging to look at the prisoner and make a note of his build in general and the type of neck in particular. What if he came just then and saw the Chaplain without his collar and Peter with the collar? He may think Peter is a new Chaplain and the Chaplain is the one to hang.
JIM: But he knows the Chaplain well.
GOVERNOR: The usual hangman's on an important job somewhere else. This one's never seen the Chaplain, so far as I know.
GEORGE: If the hangman looked in just then, I daren't think what's going to happen tomorrow morning. There'll be complete confusion.
GOVERNOR: Yes, there will.
PETER: Look, shall we just take it as it comes tomorrow morning. I only had the collar on for such a short time so I don't think there's any need to worry. (The CHAPLAIN struggles again and for a moment, GEORGE releases his hold on the pen which has prevented him from speaking. The pen falls to the floor.)
CHAPLAIN: This is ludicrous. Listen to me!
GEORGE: Sorry about that. (He reaches down and picks up the pen from the floor and is about to insert it back into the mouth of the CHAPLAIN.)
MEDICAL OFFICER: Let's hear him. I'm interested in what German intelligence has to say. (Nobody makes any objection.)
CHAPLAIN: Rubbish, Morrison, rubbish, absolute rubbish. I'm not a German spy! You planted that cyanide capsule - if it is a cyanide capsule!
PETER: If it's not a cyanide capsule, then I challenge you to swallow it.
CHAPLAIN: I'm not going to swallow it. It may be a cyanide capsule, for all I know, but it's definitely got nothing to do with me.
PETER: I did not plant it. It was concealed in your mouth.
GOVERNOR: Where would Peter get hold of a cyanide capsule, anyway?
CHAPLAIN: Easy. A real German spy might have left one in the cell before he was executed. Morrison could have found it.
PETER: I never found one. I repeat, I never found one.
CHAPLAIN: Or his wife brought it in. She could easily have given it to him, everything here's so casual and free and easy.
GOVERNOR: Keep your filthy mouth shut. I'm certain Jean didn't bring it in.
JEAN: Chaplain, you're wrong. I never brought the capsule here. For what purpose? To allow Peter to commit suicide? I want him to live! You're badly wrong.
CHAPLAIN: Oh, it should be obvious why you might bring a cyanide capsule here. Peter plants it on me or somebody else and gets the credit for unmasking a German spy. The grateful authorities then spare Peter's life. A long shot, but desperate people would think it was worth trying.
JEAN: We would never do such a thing. The fact that we turned down the M.O.'s plan to have you hanged in the morning rather than Peter shows you something about us.
CHAPLAIN: You both realized the plan wouldn't have been the answer. Morrison couldn't have been Chaplain for long. He'd be hanged in the end.
PETER: If you're not a German spy, let's see your underpants. (CHAPLAIN shows evident signs of panic.) George, Jim, take off his trousers.
CHAPLAIN: Don't! (GEORGE and JIM remove the CHAPLAIN'S trousers, the CHAPLAIN struggling the whole time. His underpants are revealed, not 'fine and luxurious but grimy, with holes. All except the CHAPLAIN have a look of intense disappointment but PETER forces a weak smile.)
PETER: Ah, cunning, very cunning.
[Section of the script under revision]
GOVERNOR: George and Jim, go next door to the execution chamber. Do your work. (GEORGE and JIM exit to the execution chamber, closing the door behind them. Sounds of hammering and filing are soon heard.)
PETER: I hardly dare ask. What's happening next door.?
GOVERNOR: I'll come to that. About George and Jim. You never guessed the truth about them? (Sounds of work being carried out continue to come from the execution chamber.)
PETER: What truth? Truth seems to be in short supply in this place.
GOVERNOR: They're not prison officers at all, they're intelligence officers.
PETER: British or German?
GOVERNOR: British, of course.
PETER: I can't take this in.
GOVERNOR: They were appointed to take the place of the two who were murdered. Whilst they've been here, they've been working on new techniques - new languages, even.
GOVERNOR: Yes, I have to. You'll have noticed how intently they play cards and dominoes.
PETER: I have.
GOVERNOR: Well, they've made innovations. In occupied Europe, where the resistance and our own agents have to contend with informers and listening devices, there's a need for passing on information about resistance activities. When you've seen George and Jim playing cards, they've actually been passing information to each other about the assassination of Nazis, blowing up railway lines, execution of informers, the timing of parachute drops, safe houses. When they've perfected the language, people will be able to do the same in public places, under the noses of the Germans. The dominoes game is designed for a different purpose. British Intelligence realized that agents and resistance workers don't need to communicate just about practicalities. So the domino language is concerned with the almost unbearable pressures that they have to face. It allows them to communicate in public, but silently, about the fear of death, the fear of torture, isolation, boredom, the depths of despair. Dominoes, black with white spots, are the night sky and stars. George and Jim form new constellations with terrible names. Instead of constellations like The Plough or Libra the Scales, they form The Rack and The Gallows, about new and terrible constellations. Far into the night, whilst you are asleep, they converse silently about death and anguish, and by facing the worst slowly acquire serenity of spirit. You never realized any of this, did you?
PETER: And perhaps you shouldn't have told me about it. It's information that should be confined to the very few.
GOVERNOR: I trust you.
PETER: And you yourself, are you...?
GOVERNOR: I'm just an ordinary governor.
PETER: Tell me, please, what are they doing next door?
GOVERNOR: Have you heard of John Lee, who was called 'the man they could not hang.'
PETER: No, but I like the phrase.
GOVERNOR: This was at Exeter Prison. The trap doors failed to open. The executioner stamped on them, and they still didn't open. Lee was taken away from the trap doors. This time they opened but when he was put back, they failed to open again. He was eventually reprieved. There are various theories about why the apparatus didn't work but tomorrow morning there'll be no mystery about it. George and Jim are installing a tiny device that prevents the trap doors from opening. Product of scientific ingenuity, but it won't be patented.
PETER: It's completely effective?
GOVERNOR: Completely. The only danger comes if the hangman looks very, very closely after the initial failure of the trap doors. The device is so tiny that it's just about certain that he won't be able to see anything but to be on the safe side, you could try thumping him in the face at 8 in the morning. After the failure to execute you, you'll be taken to an ordinary cell and reprieved. The British public will accept that - act of God, he wasn't meant to be killed.
PETER: I like it.
(Sounds coming from the execution chamber cease. GEORGE and JIM enter the condemned cell and go up to the GOVERNOR before sitting down.)
JIM: Fixed it, Sir.
GEORGE: You're safe now, Peter.
PETER: How does it work? An electromagnet?
JIM: State secret, I'm afraid.
PETER: I hope it comes with a guarantee! (The others smile.) The best guarantee would be ... Governor, if you're so confident that it will work, let's all go into the execution chamber, you stand with the rope round your neck on the trap doors and I'll pull the lever.
GOVERNOR: Your little joke!
PETER: Not at all.
GEORGE: Sir, you needn't have any fears.
JIM: None at all.
GOVERNOR: I'm sure you're right. It's just that...
PETER: Do it.
GOVERNOR: George, Jim, you installed the thing. You trust your own workmanship. Why don't you do it?
GEORGE: Be only too happy, Sir, but...
JIM: Would be glad to, Sir, but...
PETER: To save any arguments, I insist on all of you testing the thing, one at a time, in alphabetical order. You're to stand there with the rope round your neck and I'll pull the lever. You were so confident earlier on. People who repair aircraft are happy enough to go up in the aircraft. Engineers and their workers aren't afraid to use the bridges they've built. Come on George, you're first in alphabetical order.
GEORGE: I'm not making this up, but George is actually my middle name. My first name is William.
GOVERNOR: Right, Bill, you're first!
PETER: Governor, you outrank George and Jim. You go first, then George, then Jim. (The resistance of the GOVERNOR, GEORGE and JIM suddenly crumbles. All go to the door leading to the execution chamber, the GOVERNOR unlocks the door and all enter, the GOVERNOR closing the door behind them. After less than a minute, all re-enter the condemned cell. The door leading to the execution chamber is again closed by the GOVERNOR. PETER is radiant with happiness.) It really does work! I'll never forget this as long as I live - each of you standing there with the rope round your neck, me pulling the lever - and nothing happened at all! I'm sorry for doubting you.
GOVERNOR (smugly): We do our best. Oh, there's one little detail I haven't explained yet. The regular hangman always put the white cap on the client when he's standing on the gallows. He makes the point that if the man can't see where he's going when he comes into the execution chamber, he tends to be distressed and can easily stumble. The substitute hangman, though, thinks that the first sight of the gallows can affect the client so badly that he becomes helpless.
PETER: How thoughtful these people are.
GOVERNOR: Anyway, tomorrow morning the cap will be put on in here, so be prepared for that, won't you. You'll be walking in there without being able to see. Still, you know the way pretty well by now, I'm sure. Oh, one other thing. I'm informed that this hangman won't be working with an assistant. The assistant has a cold.
[Section of the script under revision]
(Sirens are heard, warning of an air raid. The lights in the condemned cell continue to glow dimly but there is an area of darkness outside the cell. This darkness is illuminated by two spot lights which shine upwards, representing searchlights. PETER, GEORGE and JIM are not able to take shelter. Almost immediately, sounds from the Blitz are head: dull explosions as if from a distance and much louder explosions as if from near misses, together with the noise of anti-aircraft fire. After one near miss, the lights in the condemned cell are extinguished. The haunting and atmospheric sounds are intended to increase the tension of the audience and increase its uncertainty about what will happen to PETER. Will he be killed in the air raid, or even given the chance to escape if the fabric of the prison is damaged? These sounds, as shattering in their impact as possible, should last for two or three minutes, whilst PETER strides around the stage, defiantly shouting. His shouts should be synchronized with the loud sounds of explosions, so that very little of what he says can be heard distinctly. PETER has become far more inarticulate under the pressure of emotion, unlike King Lear in the storm, but like Buechner's inarticulate Woyzeck. PETER is lit up from time to time by huge flashes of light, which, unlike the lightning which precedes thunder, are simultaneous with the massive explosions.)
PETER: Do it! Blow us up! End it, end it all! Destroy me! Kill me! Bury me! Bury me in rubble!
(GEORGE and JIM play dominoes intently, raptly. The explosions become more frequent as the cataclysm reaches its climax. The sounds gradually subside, the flashes of light come to an end. PETER goes back to the bed and lies down, his face visible to the audience. The sound of the all-clear siren is heard: the air raid is at an end. There is now silence, except for the hypnotic sound of the dominoes being put down firmly on the table. GEORGE and JIM seem to enter a dimension of horror. They stare at PETER for a few moments, whilst continuing to play. GEORGE and JIM continue to play dominoes for a minute longer, during which time the lights of the condemned cell are turned off, the grey light of dawn making them unnecessary. GEORGE and JIM stop playing. There is complete silence. A large clock, with seconds hand, is revealed. The time is one minute to eight. GEORGE and JIM stare at PETER. At exactly 8 a.m. the door leading from the corridor is opened. Enter a small procession: the EXECUTIONER, who was the MEDICAL OFFICER, followed by the CHAPLAIN (in robes), and the GOVERNOR. The CHAPLAIN is reading from the burial service of the Book of Common Prayer. His demeanour must have the utmost solemnity and gravity, presenting the maximum contrast with the circumstances in which he was led away without dignity. His voice is sonorous and deep. Whilst he reads, GEORGE and JIM advance on PETER, who resists to the utmost: not by fighting, but by tenaciously holding on to the bed and then other objects, so that GEORGE and JIM have to slowly prise his hands away. Eventually, this is done and by a very great effort PETER'S hands are forced behind his back - by this time he is standing. The EXECUTIONER manages to place a leather belt around PETER'S waist, which also secures his hands.
CHAPLAIN (reading from The Book of Common Prayer): Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were like a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.
In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?
Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful Saviour, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.
PETER (to the audience): Help me! Help me! Why don't you help me?
CHAPLAIN: Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour, thou most worthy Judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee.
(The EXECUTIONER attempts to place the white cap over PETER'S head, but despite the fact that he is firmly held by GEORGE and JIM, he sags to his knees. With a great effort, he is lifted up but again falls. With great difficulty, he is lifted up again and the cap is placed over his head. PETER wets himself and begins to make anguished moans, muffled by the cap. These continue as he is dragged by GEORGE and JIM towards the execution chamber. The door is opened and the procession enters. The door is almost closed, but the sound of PETER crying out can be still be heard. The sound stops abruptly when the crash of the trap doors opening is heard)