"Perfection is not the basis of what I'm talking about," says a member of the Cassandra family, which forms the center of Denis Johnson's plays, Hellhound on My Trail and Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames.The character could be speaking for his creator, because human imperfection is one of Denis Johnson's specialties — in his critically acclaimed novels, short stories, and nonfiction, and, now, in two brilliant new plays.

These two works present a dramatized field ...

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"Perfection is not the basis of what I'm talking about," says a member of the Cassandra family, which forms the center of Denis Johnson's plays, Hellhound on My Trail and Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames.The character could be speaking for his creator, because human imperfection is one of Denis Johnson's specialties — in his critically acclaimed novels, short stories, and nonfiction, and, now, in two brilliant new plays.

These two works present a dramatized field guide to some of the more dysfunctional and dysphoric inhabitants of the American West: a sexual-misconduct investigator who misconducts herself sexually; a renegade Jehovah's Witness who supports his splinter Jehovean group by dealing drugs; the Cassandra Brothers and their father and their grandmother, thrown together at a family reunion/wedding/melee at their shabby homestead in Ukiah, California.

When Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames was performed in San Francisco in 2001, the Chronicle said, There's an enormous appeal in Johnson's bleak-comic vision of a semi-mythic American West. That appeal derives from the author's perfect vision of imperfection, embodied with such energy and courage in these marvelous pieces of theatre.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The author of short stories (Jesus' Son) and novels (e.g., The Name of the World), Johnson is also playwright-in-residence at the Campo Santo theater company at San Francisco's Intersection for the Arts. Here he presents two plays, both of which focus on the dysfunctional Cassandra family and are linked by one minor event: Marigold Cassandra's suspension from her job at the Agriculture Department. None of the three acts of the first play, "Hell Hound on My Trail," is related except for the mention of some characters from act to act. The second play, "Shoppers Carried by Escalators into the Flames," is situated in Ukiah, CA, at the beginning of the third millennium. It is more coherent than the previous play, as a continuity of action is sustained by all three acts. However, neither play concludes anything, and nothing is resolved. These plays are somewhat entertaining to read and may be enjoyable to see performed because of their colorful characters, but they are best at demonstrating Johnson's versatility as a writer who can change genres easily. Of interest to dramatists; academic libraries and large drama collections will want to consider purchasing. Robert T. Ivey, Univ. of Memphis Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060934408
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/28/2002
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Denis Johnson is the author of The Name of the World, Already Dead, Jesus' Son, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, Fiskadoro, The Stars at Noon, and Angels. His poetry has been collected in the volume The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly. He is the recipient of a Lannan Fellowship and a Whiting Writer's Award, among many other honors for his work. He lives in northern Idaho.

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Read an Excerpt

Two Plays by Denis Johnson

Scene One

An Exploration of the Colorado River

MRS. MAY's office: At stage left a large desk and swivel chair, fronted by a comfortable chair for visitors. Across the space at right, a couch and a large chair separated by a low table. Looks like a cross between an office and a waiting room.

Upstage, a wall with venetian blinds over a window.

Morning outside.

Alone in the room, MARIGOLD CASSANDRA sits on the couch. Late twenties. Business suit.

She looks at magazines from a stack on the low table. Tosses one aside, and it slides off the table onto the floor. Crosses and uncrosses her legs, etc.

She opens her purse, rummages distractedly, Comes up with a bottle of pills. Pause. Unscrews the cap and downs one. Pause. Reaches in her mouth and takes it out. Pause. Puts it back in her mouth, clamped by her front teeth.

Hunts in her purse again. Finds a little airline liquor bottle and quickly unscrews its cap and washes down the pill with a swallow.

MARIGOLD: Oh. Jesus Christ.

Gets a breath spray from her purse and opens wide and hits her larynx. Finds some gum in her purse. Unwraps and chews it. Tosses the wrapper into the purse. Stares down into it.

Pause. She spits the gum into the purse.

She takes another pill, rapidly repeating the whole process, emptying the tiny jug and tossing it into the purse. And then more breathspray. Moregum. She sighs.


The door opens a crack. A woman peeks in and smiles: MRS. MAY, late forties, in a black dress with white borders, the senior citizen look. She knocks tentatively and enters with a slightly hunched, apologetic air — leaves the door ajar behind her. She looks around, adjusts the blinds to make more light. Gathers magazines into stacks, picking up the one on the floor. She talks softly, as if in deference to people working in nearby offices.

MRS. MAY: Were you looking at this one?

MARIGOLD: No. Yes. But not now. (Pause.) I didn't expect magazines! (Pause.) Is this a waiting room? Is there an inner office?

MRS. MAY: Oh, this is the inner office. I'll take these old ones home... Unless you—?

MARIGOLD: No. Thanks.

MRS. MAY: This one's recent. (Showing it.) How did they get that?

MARIGOLD: Horrible.

MRS. MAY: He was right in the fire. Snapping pictures... Look at that. It looks like Iwo Jima, doesn't it, with the flag, only they're being crushed.

Pause. MARIGOLD, looking, gasps in polite appreciation.

MRS. MAY: Carried by escalators into the flames... (Pause.) Did you see the news on TV when it, after they—

MARIGOLD: Horrible. Wasn't it more than eighty—

MRS. MAY: They were laid out like shish kebab in the parking lot... And it was raining. And the steam was rising off the corpses in the rain.

MARIGOLD: I don't remember that.

MRS. MAY: Don't you?

MARIGOLD: Not — isn't the sun — were these pictures taken that day? Because it seems sunny—

MRS. MAY: —it seems sunny—

MARIGOLD: It does.

MRS. MAY: I probably misremembered. Every time you turn on the TV. Don't you agree, Ms. Cassandra? All the corpses blur together. (Pause.) I'm sorry—

MARIGOLD: No. I just got startled. My name — You knew. I didn't think — Well, perhaps I should ask: Are you (Pause. MRS. MAY is leaning close to her.) Do I — (MARIGOLD leans back.) — smell funny? I mean... For instance is my perfume all right?

MRS. MAY: Wow. You are nervous!

MARIGOLD: They flew me from Dallas.

MRS. MAY: It's a hundred and one in Dallas. Already this morning!

MARIGOLD: That's — I mean, I can believe it. It's terrible there. Really hot. All the time. (Pause.) Was it a special news item? Or do you — you know, maybe you have some relatives — (MRS. MAY is fanning the air in front of her face.) Are you sure you don't — if you whiff sort of — (MARIGOLD turns away, finds her breath mist.)

MRS. MAY (Standing, arranging things on the desk): Yes. (Pause.) It was a special news item. Hottest place in the USA. Hotter than Phoenix. Hotter than Yuma. Oh, they'll catch up by noon. They're in the desert and the temperature drops off when the sun goes down. But Dallas didn't cool off at all last night... It's down around ninety here in Houston.

Meanwhile, MARIGOLD inhales a puff of freshener, gets the device back in her purse, turns to find MRS. MAY seated comfortably behind the desk.

MARIGOLD: When do you think—


MARIGOLD's jaw drops.


MARIGOLD: I feel like my plane crashed and I'm dead.


MRS. MAY: I'm sorry... Were you about to ask—?


MARIGOLD: I was about to ask when you thought you'd get here.

MRS. MAY: But I'm here.


MARIGOLD: I know. How do you do, Mrs. May?

MRS. MAY gestures. MARIGOLD sits in the chair before the desk.


MRS. MAY: I do smell liquor. Is it you?

MARIGOLD: No. Of course not.


MARIGOLD: It's probably just mouthwash.


MARIGOLD opens her mouth to speak, changes her mind.


MRS. MAY: Were you about to speak?



MRS. MAY: And...?

MARIGOLD: I thought better of it.


MRS. MAY: Marigold?


MRS. MAY: May I call you Marigold?

MARIGOLD: Certainly, I like my name. Please do.

MRS. MAY: Marigold...


Would you like to begin by making a statement in your own words?

MARIGOLD: I'm sorry, no.

MRS. MAY: All right.

MARIGOLD: I'm happy to address any questions I can answer briefly. I'm completely new to this — procedure. I have no idea what the procedure is or even if this is, I mean actually, a procedure, something with a pre-set... I'll tell you this much. I found myself on the merry-go-round where the...

Two Plays by Denis Johnson
. Copyright © by Denis Johnson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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