Both Sides Now

[This play was written by Andrew Bowers to commemorate the 175th Anniversary of the Littleton Lyceum.]

Stage is two levels, on upper level are two large frames, one, upper stage right, USR, is an antique Victorian frame, the other, USL, is an old National Geographic frame. Both have scrims. On the lower level a husband and wife are sitting in the dark, their backs to each other, both are at computer keyboards on desks/tables, lights come up separately, SR and SL, as each speaks.

HUS: (composing at computer keyboard): Sweetheart, I know I should be figuring out the budget for our upcoming vacation, but my thoughts keep turning to you. (pause) How are you? I am fine. The weather here is nice. Send.

WIFE: (ditto): So nice to hear from you. I, too, should be working, but am instead. Hey, wasn't I doing the vacation budget, sweetheart? Send.

HUS: No, sweet-heart, remember last night after dinner? You said you'd do the quarterly taxes if I did the vacation budget.

WIFE: Listen, salty liver. You- taxes, me- budget.

HUS: Me- Tarzan, you- accountant. And speaking of salty liver, is that lasagna I smell in oven? Shall I decant some Chianti?

WIFE: No, it's your racquet ball sweats in the dryer. Of course it's lasagna. The Ogilthorps are coming at 6:00, so please consider decamping your keester. You know, we still haven't made a decision about lyceum.

HUS: "Lyceum?" You're talking commitment when I'm talking wine? How (stops composing, calls) Um, honey, how do you spell "obtuse"?

Lights come up on both

WIFE: In your case, it's "A-V-O-I-D-A-N-C-E." Listen, honey, or should I say "molasses"?", we really should have an answer for the Ogilthorps.

HUS: Well, I can't say that I've made up my mind. Working on lyceum doesn't seem to mean an exorbitant amount of time, but what's the point in it? I've meant to do some research on the lyceum, but I've been busy.

WIFE: I hear you, especially the busy part. I mean, with the children and work and keeping up the house, we hardly have time to find out what lyceum is, let alone what we'd be in for.

HUS: And joining another committee? We're so busy we can't find time to figure out how busy we are.

WIFE: But we need to figure out what we're going to do about this.

HUS: You're right, the Ogilthorps asked us to join the Lyceum Committee and we've got to be adult about it and say yes or no tonight. So what do we say?

WIFE: So much for you being an adult. We have 'til dessert to decide, but let's try and come to that decision together before the lasagna's done.

HUS: Okay, let's both Google "lyceum."

Husband and wife type at keyboards. Lights come up in antique frame scrim USR revealing Josiah Holbrook

HUS: I came up with "Josiah Holbrook, founder American Lyceum Movement. Born 1788 September 3, Derby, Connecticut. Died 1854, June 20, then there's a question mark near Lynchburg, Virginia.

WIFE: I wonder what the question mark means.

Husband and wife murmur as lights go down on lower stage and come up USR and Josiah Holbrook emerges from picture frame.

JH: "Lyceum" was the garden by the temple of Apollo in ancient Athens, that great center of learning, where Aristotle would hold forth and educate the wondering multitude.

I learned of this original lyceum in an alternative center of education in New Haven, a place more of privilege than of the democratic notions of the ancient Greeks' notions which we ourselves now hold so dear.

Eventually I saw the possibility for the democratization of education; education for the masses. It was worthy goal that could be attainable through the American Lyceum Movement

I wrote and lectured extensively on the subject.

"The society will hold meetings, as often as they think expedient, for the purpose of mutual instruction in the sciences; by investigating and discussing them or any other branch of useful knowledge."

"The several branches of Natural Philosophy, viz. Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Pneumatics, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Botany, Mathematics, History, Political Economy."

As Holbrook lists sciences, USR lights dim as lights on lower stage come back up.

HUS: Sounds like an interesting, old Yankee.

WIFE: Who had a mysterious death in Virginia.

HUS: What did you find?

WIFE: I looked up "lyceum" and "Littleton" and found a history of it written by someone named Hannah Dodge.

Lights come up again in scrim of Victorian frame revealing Hannah Dodge.

HUS: Who is she?

WIFE: Maybe someone on the Historical Commission or Society? Nope, it was written in 1879.

HUS: It's unlikely any of the current members were around then... but then again...

WIFE: She must have been an interesting woman to have been charged with writing the lyceum's history in 1879. That was forty years before women could even vote.

Oh, she wrote it for the "Semi-centennial."

HUS: The wha?

WIFE: 50th anniversary. It says here that the Littleton Lyceum was formed in 1829.

Lowers lights go down on lower stage as they come up USR and Hannah steps from frame.

HD: The year was 1829:

"Between the town meeting and the religious meeting nothing came. Amusements were other than intellectual. But few newspapers (not a single daily) were taken and no magazines.

There were no book club and no town library. There was not a piano nor organ in town.

No wonder that men of advancing ideas hailed the project of Mr. Josiah Holbrook.

No wonder that whole families would leave their comfortable hearths on winter nights and congregate in the Center schoolhouse for the Lyceum exercise."

Lights come up CUS.

HD: Oh sir, I did not realize I was not alone.

JH: Madam, I was drawn to your recitation. Permit me to introduce myself, I am Josiah Holbrook.

HD: Mr. Holbrook, it is, indeed, a pleasure to meet someone in the ether as eminent as you. I am Miss Dodge of Littleton.

She holds out her hand which he shakes gently.

JH: Miss Stodge.

HD: Dodge; Miss Hannah Dodge.

He doesn't recognize her.

Such accomplishments, sir; how ever did you ever manage?

JH: As a wise man once said, if you want something done, find a busy man.

Pray tell, from whose treatise were you reading?

HD: My own. It is the history I wrote of the Littleton Lyceum at the time of its semi-centennial.

JH: How commendable; especially for a woman.

Littleton, they formed their lyceum early on, 1829, I believe, and they had reasonable rates of membership.

HD: One dollar on admission and 33 cents annually.

JH: And women half price, and servants free. How is it you came to write its history?

HD: Sir, I'll have you know I was at one time chair of the lecture committee.

JH: Commendable, commendable. And no doubt, with your gentlemen colleagues, you were responsible for procuring such erudite speakers as Messrs Emerson and Alcott. Subjects such as "Geology of the Scriptures" and "Napoleon."

HD: And Miss Eastman and Mrs. Livermore on subjects such as "Women's Suffrage" and "Queen Elizabeth."

JH: Well, hmm, the lyceum movement seems to have changed some since my time.

HD: Yes, it improved.

JH: Ah, that is your opinion, Madam. On this matter I am not so sure. I believe we are called out of the ether to witness important events dear to us and yet over which we no longer have any control.

HD: You mean this couple we have seen discussing lyceum? I think we have been called to influence them to the betterment of society at large.

JH: They are emblematic of the trend towards the degradation and dissolution of the lyceum movement.

HD: But sir, this lyceum, like no other, has remained constant.

JH: Ah, it was a noble endeavor, now tainted and corrupt. Alas, I see us as having no influence here whatsoever.

HD: Sir, I think you know not from whence you speak. Yours was but slightly before my time. You passed to the other side in...

JH: In 1854, it was early summer.

HD: Under peculiar circumstances, I believe, which I cannot recall at this time, but which...

JH: Our discussion, perhaps the reason for us being here, is lyceum. Allow me to recollect to you that debate and discussion were the cornerstone of the lyceum movement, as well as grammar and...

Dodge and Holbrook
Hannah Dodge (Donna White) and
Josiah Holbrook (John McAuliffe)

HUS: "Parsing"?! What the heck is "parsing"?!

Lights come up on lower stage.

HUS: And "elocution" and "phrenology" and "zoography." I mean, what is "zoography," drawing zoos?!

WIFE: Be fair, honey, there were a lot of important discussions, too: Astronomy, geology, slavery.

JH: In my time we debated capital punishment, westward migration.

HD: Temperance and women's suffrage.

WIFE: And women's suffrage; look, honey, they were debating women's rights as far back as the 1830s!

HUS: Here's a good one: "Are dancing and balls advantageous to youth?" 1838. "Ought Roman Catholics be disenfranchised?" 1848 "Is it proper that a female be placed at the head of government?"

JH: Ha!

WIFE: I don't think you're being fair to the progressive attitude of lyceum. Look, later in the 19th century, a lecture on Communism. This is important stuff.

HUS: Maybe it was then, but I don't think you see how irrelevant lyceum has become. There's TV, radio, movies, cable, video games.

JH: Oh, he's right; where are my ideals now. All foolishness and frippery.

HD: Sir, times change, you must change with them.

WIFE: It's not some frivolous venture, lyceum still brings things to Littletonians that we need and enjoy, it's just we simply don't have time to put into it!

HUS.: We could make the time, but to what end?

WIFE: Maybe this debate should end.

HUS: You're the one who wanted an answer for the Ogilthorps

WIFE: I'm taking the lasagna out to cool off! (exits SL)

HUS.: Maybe we all should cool off! (exits SL)

Lights come down on lower stage.

JH: There, that is the future of lyceum; overwhelmed by, by moving and cable and lasagna.

I am fortunate to have died when I did.

HD: Sir, your transition into the next life must have been a difficult one; it has left you without your reason.

We may have abandoned debate and parsing as the basis for lyceum, but in my age we still had important lectures - Abolition, Antietam, Electricity.

JH: Oh, and piano recitals, comedians' magic lantern shows!

HD: I'll have you know that "Up the Rhine and over the Alps with a knapsnack," complete with stereopticon was one of the best and most interesting lectures of my tenure.

And there were many pertinent topics of the day as well!

JH: Bah! It was more about socializing than about socialism. Oh, why am I called here just to witness my own ignominity?

HD: And why, pray tell, must I witness it as well?!

Feuding parties glare at one another. Upper lights go down and then come up in Nat'l Geographic scrim revealing Irving Johnson. After a moment he steps out. Lights up USL.

IJ: It was my pleasure to speak several times at the Littleton Lyceum, as well as many similar venues across the country.

As and author, maker of movies and a world traveler, perhaps I may of help in this matter.

All upper stage lights come up.

JH: And who are you, sir?

JH: Captain Irving Johnson of the brigantine Yankee, at your service.

HD: You spoke at our lyceum? It must have been after my time.

IJ: Well after it, ma'am, but I still know a little something about lyceum nonetheless. I know what it's become; I was part of it!

"Our first dawn on the Nile unveiled unforgettable beauty, armadas of graceful, one-masted cargo craft called feluccas. We never tired of watching them, majestic moths spreading their wings, great lateen sails curved upward like scimitars 130 feet in air."

JH: Ah, a traveler, a sailor. Sail much, did you?

IJ: Oh, my wife, Exy, and I only circumnavigated the globe seven times.

HD: Goodness, you AND your wife.

IJ: Ah, yes, she spoke five languages, bartered with islanders, manned the helm at times and made those trips work.

JH: This seems injudicious.

HD: I think it's delightful, but did she get any credit for it?

IJ: Goodness me, yes. She was never Mrs. Irving Johnson, she always got credit as co-author or co-leader.

HD: Such was often not the case in my day

IJ: As you say, times change.

JH: Not always for the better.

Dodge and Holbrook
Modern Dance (Richelle Dupont) and
Capt. Irving Johnson (David Butz)
IJ: No, but not always for the worse, either. Sometimes you get a preconceived notion of how things should be, and when they aren't you think something's gone wrong or that your influence has been for naught.

HD: I have heard that recently.

IJ: But I'm here to tell you of the success of this lyceum and how it has managed to continue when so many didn't, and that if this couple... What happened to them?

HD: Something about cooling a lasagna. Is that some kind of metaphor?

JH: We expect them presently. They have yet to decide if they will help this lyceum to continue to exist.

IJ: In the meantime, let me show you a little of what lyceum has become.

The dancer emerges from back center of platform peers about and then poses like Bip in repose.

HD: This is not what lyceum has become is it?

IJ: In a manner of speaking, yes.

Dancer performs some Snappy Dance type moves

JH: But what is it? Is this "lasagna"?

IJ: No, no, this is modern dance, it's difficult for some people of the modern age to grasp, let alone, their forebearers, but it is something that the Littleton Lyceum has made available to its subscribers. And there's much more, like music ensembles.

Dancer mimics playing instruments.

And historical impersonators.

Dancer mimics Abraham Lincoln speechifying

and magicians.

Dancer produces a "magic" bouquet of flowers, or similar.

HD: Well, I must say!

Dancer mimics Hannah Dodge.

In all my days I never imagined that lyceum would turn into, into this!

IJ: Times change and if institutions like lyceum don't change with them they merely become museums to things past, or disappear all together.

HD: But lyceum was meant to be educational. There were important lectures!

JH: Debates! Parsing!

IJ: When your Littleton Lyceum began, there wasn't even a high school in town.

HD: That is true.

IJ: Nowadays it's no longer a matter of bringing education to the masses.

People's lives are very complicated in this modern age; one thing they need are pleasant distractions

HD&JH: But people need more--

HD: --than just distractions in life.

JH: Uh, yes.

IJ: And they get it. Perhaps my travelogue on the Nile wasn't as erudite as debating evolution, but I'd like to think it broadened people's appreciation of foreign culture and fostered a sense of adventure.

Dancer mimics explorer.

JH: You brought this to lyceum?

IJ: Certainly not alone. Norman Baker, who sailed with Thor Hyerdahl on a papyrus raft from Africa to the new world, stood in person in Littleton and spoke of his experiences to a wondering multitude.

JH: And that multitude; perhaps in the modern age it's still important for people to congregate as a community.

IJ: To congregate and appreciate. Why, many of them never get to hear or see a live entertainment like Dixieland Jazz bands or modern dance.

Dancer mimics band playing annoyingly.

...or similar things that lyceum brings into people's lives. (to dancer) Uh, thank you, that's enough.

Dancer sits down.

JH: However it is still nothing more than what now passes as entertainment, a diversion; nothing deep and engaging and edifying.

HD: Much as it grieves me to agree with you, I feel that I might.

IJ: Ah, but you've missed the point.

Dancer agreeing. Husband and wife reenter SL, lower stage lights go up.

Let's see if our friends have caught it.

HUS: Topnotch lasagna, honey, the Ogilthorps will be mightily impressed.

WIFE: And thanks for picking up exactly the right Chianti. I'm sorry I called you "molasses" and "salty liver," um, sweetheart

HUS: No, I think you're right about my A-V-O-I-D-A-N-C-E. All right, let's make a decision: Are we joining the Littleton Lyceum Committee or not?

HD: This is why we are here.

Others shush her.

WIFE: If we make time, we can do this, and it's something I'm interested in.

HUS: After looking into it, I have to say I am impressed at this town having the oldest continuing lyceum in the nation. I wouldn't mind being part of that.

WIFE: You know what they say, if you want something done, find a busy person; we're certainly that.

HUS: Then it's agreed, we tell the Ogilthorps we'll join.

WIFE: Agreed.

Dancer applauds enthusiastically, but silently. Husband and wife return to their computers.

HD: They've chosen and chosen well.

JH: They might not have.

IJ: I don't think you give yourself the credit you deserve all of us deserve: By doing the right thing at the right time, we have been fortunate in influencing others to do the same.

JH: So it wasn't ignominity, it was success?

IJ: Yes, that's right.

HD: And now it is their turn; they are giving of their time and energy. It would seem lyceum remains something that's important to the community, how nice.

IJ: Through the years, that's always been the way.

Dancer yawns exaggeratedly and then exits UCS. Others begin rouse to leave.

JH: Well, it is heartening to hear you say so, sir, very heartening, indeed.

IJ: I think we can rest easy about the fate of the Littleton Lyceum.

HUS: I found it!

Dancer reenters USC quickly.

WIFE: What?

HUS: How Holbrook died.

HD: Oh, my. (pause) Do go on!

Dodge and Holbrook
Ensemble watching the husband (Bob Tordella-Williams) and
wife (Susan Tordella-Williams)

HUS: Seems he was collecting fossils for a lecture he was giving, and when on a cliff above a river he pitched off and over to the other side,took them a while to find him.

WIFE: Dedicated to the end.

HD: A most commendable death, sir, most commendable.

All ghosts and dancer exit USC. All upper stage lights down. Husband and wife rise to leave.

HUS: I think we've made the right decision.

WIFE: Me, too. I'm sure the Ogilthorps will be pleased.

HUS: They'll be pleased with your lasagna.

WIFE: No, I mean I feel like what we do now will have an influence on the future.

HUS: Hmm, it's a thought. Only tell me one thing:

WIFE: Hmm?

HUS: What the heck is "parsing?"

Husband and wife exit SL. All lights down. Cue thunderous applause.


© 2005 | Andrew Bowers