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The Theatre of Sabina Berman: The Agony of Ecstasy and Other Plays introduces and makes accessible to an English-speaking audience the work of the contemporary Mexican playwright Sabina Berman. The book contains translations of the four plays that established Berman’s career: The Agony of Ecstasy, Yankee, Puzzle, and Heresy. An introduction by Adam Versényi provides a critical assessment of each play, a discussion of the specific problems of translation involved, and placement of Berman’s work in the larger Mexican and Latin American context.
It is evident that Sabina Berman’s theatrical acumen matches the depth of her dramatic design whether it is the sheer variety of techniques from song to staged tableau that appear in The Agony of Ecstasy; the physicalization of what it means to be interrogated and to interrogate in Yankee; the final enigmatic image of a soldier alone on stage, silently aiming his firearm at an undefined threat that potentially emanates from the audience in Puzzle; or the manner in which the family narrates its own “heretical” actions in Heresy. It is the combination of theatrical technique with universal themes of self-definition that cuts across cultures and ultimately makes these plays translatable.
Three One-Act Plays on a Single Theme
* * *
Each play deals with a couple and an absent third person. A minimum of two and a maximum of six actors are required for performance.
ONE. THE MUSTACHE
HE: Effeminate man. SHE: Masculine woman.
HE and SHE both wear their hair cut short and dyed a red mahogany color. They are svelte, beautiful, and elegant-and they know it. They speak and move with leisurely assurance. They look astonishingly alike.
The action takes place in the main room of a hotel suite. A little table on which can be found a tea service and two cups. Two chairs. A door that leads to the bedroom from the main room. It is morning.
When the lights come up SHE reads the newspaper, seated at the table. From time to time she takes a sip of tea. She wears white silk pants and shirt. After a while HE appears, dressed exactly the same as SHE. HE enters through the door to the bedroom. HE is still drowsy. HEapproaches her and kisses her on the cheek.
HE: Good morning, dear.
SHE nods. Continues reading. HE sits down.
HE: Excuse me. I mean for getting up so late. I think I had one too many last night.
SHE turns the page. HE watches her every movement.
HE: In a bad mood?
SHE shakes her head no. Continues reading. HE keeps watching her.
HE: There's something different about you today. As if something was missing or ... Is your shirt new?
SHE: Drink your tea. There it is.
HE: It's cold.
HE gets up with the cup. Goes to a flower pot and pours out the tea. Sits down again. Tilts the teapot. There isn't any tea left. HE looks at her for a long time with rancor. HE observes the still steaming tea in her teacup. SHE takes a sip. HE looks at her with controlled anger.
HE: I know what it is. You're not wearing your mustache.
SHE lowers the newspaper.
SHE: My mustache? Of course I'm not wearing my mustache. You have my mustache.
SHE: You've got my mustache on your face.
HE touches his lips.
HE: Ah, yes. Excuse me, I'm sorry.
SHE continues reading. HE is deep in thought.
HE: Could you tell me why I'm wearing your mustache?
SHE suddenly lowers the newspaper. Folds it energetically. Looks at him firmly.
SHE: You've forgotten about last night?
HE refuses to look at her.
HE: Do you want it?
SHE: No. What for?
HE: I thought you liked wearing it.
SHE: Liar. You know perfectly well that I use it only so that I won't be propositioned. Only for that. So men don't try to pick me up when I don't feel like it.
HE: I forgot. I'm sorry.
SHE: You didn't forget. You wanted to annoy me. the agony of ecstasy
HE: That's not true. I swear. You know I forget things.
SHE unfolds the newspaper.
SHE: I lent it to you last night, remember?
HE: The mustache?
SHE: You wanted to impress that brunette at the next table and asked me to lend it to you. You saw her while we were eating dinner, and since the brunette was alone, you decided to approach her and pick her up.
HE: I did this? I approached her and picked her up? I don't even remember seeing a brunette.
SHE: Incredible. (Pause) ... She was wearing a white chiffon, neckline, sleeveless. Her eyes were green, her lips full ... almond-colored skin. ... And her hair, long, jet, fell over her shoulders like ... like a black silk lightning bolt.
HE: (Maliciously) And I was the one attracted to her?
SHE: You're insinuating again ...
HE: No. Nothing. Really. I'm sorry. Are there any cookies?
SHE: You are so infantile. Just because I'm a woman that doesn't mean that I can't enjoy another woman's beauty. I admire good things when I see them. A beautifully set jewel; a purebred colt; a sky splashed with white stars ... And I don't have to take them home to enjoy them. I contemplate beauty from afar.... I let it be.... You, on the other hand, who, due to your preconceptions, can only appreciate certain kinds of beauty, see something admirable and want to possess it, consume it, use it up.
HE laughs joyfully.
HE: I'm sorry I've made you jealous.
SHE: Jealous? Me? (SHE laughs.) Me, jealous? Jealousy and I are like oil and water: we don't mix. I was the one who lent you the mustache.
HE: That's true. You're right. It's just that sometimes I can't believe that you're so liberal. Sometimes I irritate you only to prove it, you know what I mean?
SHE: We're two independent people. Our agreement ...
HE: Yes, but you never take advantage of our agreement. I do it all the time, all the time, and you never, neve ... (Moans.) the agony of ecstasy
SHE: (Vehemently) Can't you behave like an adult? Why do I have to do the same things you do? We are two people, each of has his or her own tastes and desires. Each of us is free to do as we please.
HE: You're right, you're right. I didn't mean to offend you.
SHE: I didn't mean to offend you. You never want to offend me and you're always doing so.
HE: Excuse me.
SHE: And then you feel guilty.
HE: I'm sorry.
SHE: What good is it if you're sorry?
HE: Pardon me.
SHE: An independent person never asks to be pardoned for what he does.
HE: Excuse me.
SHE: An independent person does what he wants and doesn't ask to be excused because he has no regrets.
HE: I'm sorry.
SHE: What do I care if you're sorry?
HE: You're right. Excuse me.
SHE: Don't ask me to excuse you!
HE: All right, I won't! Pardon me.
SHE: You're driving me crazy!
HE: I'm sorry!
SHE: I'm going to explode!
HE: It's my neurosis!
SHE: So I have to suffer?
HE: I'll throw myself off the balcony! I'll never bother you again!
HE gets down on his knees and implores her.
HE: Excuse me already! Please ... I can't stand it when you're irritated with me.... What would I do without you? I'm so weak.... I'll never become an independent person without your help.
SHE strokes his hair.
SHE: (Sweetly) Well, dear, you managed to be independent yesterday.
HE: The only thing I managed to do yesterday was to get so drunk that I can't remember a thing.
SHE: You don't remember, but I saw it and I'm telling you. You approached her table and seduced her. You were so sure of yourself that you didn't even wait for her to ask you to sit down.
HE: She must have thought I was rude.
SHE: No way. She was enchanted by your confidence. It was a pleasure to watch you. Such elegance in every gesture. What "charm, mon cherie." With delicious arrogance you called the maître d' and ordered: "Champagne, Brut '52. And have the musicians play Strauss."
HE: Strauss! (HE hides his face in his hands.) Good god, how tacky!
SHE: How right. All you had to see was the enthralled look she gave you to know that Strauss was exactly the tone for her. Sweet little girl. She looked at you as if in a dream.
HE: At me?
SHE: Of course at you, who else? With the mustache on, you were irresistible. That's why you asked me to lend it to you.
HE: Yes, the mustache does look good on me. I'm more sure of myself with the mustache. I know that when I'm wearing our mustache I'm irresistible. And then, what did I do next?
SHE acts out what she has to say as if she were him and HE were the brunette.
SHE: You served the champagne. You toasted. You stroked her hands. You smiled at her. You leaned against her naked shoulder and began to whisper in her ear ...
HE: (Whispering) What?
SHE: (Whispering) What do you mean "what"?
HE: (Whispering) What did I whisper to her?
SHE: (Whispering) What?
HE: (Whispering) Yes, what? What? What?
SHE: How am I supposed to know what you whispered to her! I couldn't hear what you were whispering from across the room.
HE: No, of course not, excuse me. But you watched.
Playing his part once more, SHE stands.
SHE: Shall we dance?
HE accepts the invitation.
SHE: (Taking him in her arms) The Blue Danube.
HE: (With nervous laughter) Oh my god, how tacky! (They dance.)
SHE: Sweet little girl. She stared at you as if she were in a dream. When the agony of ecstasy had she ever been approached by such a handsome man? She was like a feather in your hands. Your fine hands, your expert hands ... (SHE caresses his back, his shoulders, his waist, his buttocks, and, finally, between his legs.) ...
HE: You saw it all ... (SHE breaks the embrace. Sits down. Lights a cigarette.)
SHE: Well, almost. The rest took place behind closed doors.
HE: You mean ...? But ... we'd barely met.
SHE: Well ... what do you want me to say?
HE: But so easily?
SHE: A naive little girl. Don't judge her too harshly.
HE: I can imagine what she must have thought when she entered our suite. She must have been amazed.
SHE: (Irritated) You were polite enough not to bring her to our suite. You took another room for the two of you.
HE: Yes, of course, excuse me.... And of course I didn't tell her that I was staying in the hotel but took another room to let my wife sleep.
SHE: Your memory's coming back?
HE: Simple logic. She would have found it monstrous. There aren't many people as liberated as you and me. Everyone else demands an absolute, crippling fidelity. They are so insecure about their own worth that they think that if their partner meets someone else that they will be abandoned. That's why they get jealous. Appreciating someone else is taken as treason. They say: it's either you and me, bound together by a thousand vows, or you by yourself and me with someone else. Ah, how beautiful it is to be us. (They both sigh.) Liberated, refined, beautiful, and with everyone else within arm's reach. Although sometimes ... I don't know ... sometimes.
SHE: (Irritated) Sometimes what?
HE: Sometimes I feel guilty for being so beautiful and so refined and so socialist.... But even deeper down I'm convinced that we shouldn't fight poverty; that poverty is sublime and ugly people are tender. I believe that the smell of rancid urine and rotten apples in decaying cities is the odor of the soul ... a soul that I can't find inside myself ...
SHE: Shall I get you an aspirin for your hangover?
HE: (Pointing to the newspaper) I'd rather have the cultural section.
SHE: Society or Sights. This paper doesn't have a cultural section.
HE: An aspirin then.
SHE: Go get it.
HE: Where are they? The bathroom or the kitchenette?
SHE: The pharmacy.
HE: I could call room service. (But HE doesn't do anything. Pause.)
SHE: Do you know why you don't remember things, dear? It's because you feel so guilty about your absurd little adventures that you prefer to forget them.
HE: My adventures don't give me a bad conscience. It's yours ...
SHE: But I don't have any.
HE: That's precisely what bothers me: you don't have any. You preach to me about free love, even about its social value: that it's a way to free the masses ... a way to distribute a bit of beauty, but you never ... I hope it doesn't bother you if I remind you, you never share yourself with anyone. I beg you, for me, for my mental health, share yourself soon.
SHE: Not for you nor for anyone else will I ever do anything that isn't my own personal desire.
HE: If I saw you act like a liberated woman I wouldn't feel bad in the mornings.
SHE: How dare you? You want to limit my freedom by asking me to act like a free woman when I'm so free that I don't need to act free!
HE: You've never felt the urge? Really?
SHE: Not yet.
HE: Not even once? Not for a single minute?
HE: Do you promise me that the next time you see a good-looking man, a very good-looking one, that you'll take off the mustache and let him seduce you?
SHE: I forbid you ... that is, I suggest ... moreover: I assure you that when the day comes that I want a man to approach me and seduce me, that I will approach him and seduce him first and that I will do it so quickly he won't even realize that I've had him and thrown him away.
HE: You promise?
Pause SHE: Besides, it's your fault I use the mustache. If you introduced me as your wife ... if you didn't leave me alone to go to other tables ... I don't want anybody else, I'm liberated enough not to want anyone else, and you leave me alone and they proposition me.... I put the mustache on because I don't have a husband to scare off unwanted suitors.
HE: But you're contradicting yourself. You push me into these adventures and suddenly now ...
SHE: So I'm contradicting myself. What do you want me to do? I'm a complex person.
HE: (Maliciously) Have you seen how women look at you when you're wearing the mustache? How they smile? ... You're irresistible with the mustache on, and you know it. You enjoy it.
SHE: And just what are you insinuating, my dear?
HE: Well, sometimes it makes me think. You notice only beautiful women. You point them out to me, you advise me to approach them.... (SHE stares at him firmly. HE takes it back.) It's not true. I was joking. Don't look at me like that. I can't stand it when you look at me like that. It's obvious that you don't like women. If you didn't like men you wouldn't like me, right? And it's plain that you like me because I'm a man. Answer me. Tell me that you like me because I'm a man.
SHE: I like you.
HE: Say the whole thing. Say: I like you because you're a man.
SHE: I already said I like you.
HE: Say it word for word. Say it: I like you because you're a man.
SHE: I think that's obvious as well.
HE: Obvious. Only to you. I can't see myself. I can't see myself through my eyes. I can see myself only through your eyes, and when you look at me like that, from head to toe ... (SHE looks away.)
HE: No. Look at me. Tell me what you see.
SHE: You can't make me ... (HE makes her look at him.)
HE: Tell me, what do you see?
SHE: I see that you're weak. Insecure. That you can't behave like a person independent from me. And even so, I love you.
HE: Because I'm a man.
SHE: Because you can't behave like an independent person. Because you're weak. Insecure. Because you need me to know whether or not you're a man. (Pause)
HE: You made me like that. I wasn't like that before. You've changed me day by day. Next to you I'm nobody. But as soon as I move away from you ... (HE moves away.) ... I'm someone else. Yesterday, for example. You were sleepy, you didn't want to have anything to do with me that night, so I went and got another woman. Another woman more woman than you, gentler, fresher, younger. Her lingering nudity, you should have seen that little girl naked in front of me, looking at me as if in a dream. Mmn. My hands over her smooth skin. What wonderful skin, so soft. Her breasts. Her belly. Her pubis. Her thighs. Her long, long back. Her quivering, open mouth waiting for me. Sweet little girl ...
SHE: Sweet little girl.
HE: You can't imagine the pleasure it was to linger in caresses. How wonderful it was to feel her in the net and to be able to take her or leave her. Her hair falling between my fingers, falling like ...
SHE: Like a black silk lightning bolt.
HE: What freedom: to be able to take her or leave her. What freedom ... I felt her unbutton my shirt ... I let her kiss my chest ... I lowered my face to hers ... I said, "Open my pants with your teeth." "With your teeth," I said! "My cock. Take it. Grab my cock, little girl! No, no whimpering, for pity's sake, no. Go away, but no tears!" I felt her wet cheek against my abdomen, her trembling hand, warm, entering my clothes, searching ... searching ... finding ... kissing it. She kissed it! She kissed it, she kissed it, she kissed it ... Prince Charming awoke! (Pause) The shame ...
Excerpted from THE THEATRE OF SABINA BERMAN by Sabina Berman Copyright © 2003 by Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University. Excerpted by permission.
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|From Ecstasy to Heresy: The Theatre of Sabina Berman|
|The Agony of Ecstasy: Three One-Act Plays on a Single Theme||1|
|Bibliography of Works by and about Sabina Berman||165|