Almighty God Bierce
the AMBROSE BIERCE site
ALMIGHTY GOD BIERCE
A Monologue in Two Acts
by Ed Scutt
Ambrose Bierce at 70 years old
PLACEA lonely Washington, D. C. apartment where Ambrose Bierce is talking to an invisible interviewer
(As lights come up slowly on Bierce's apartment, he is seated at a writing desk with a lamp, a tumbler of whiskey, a skull, books, some scattered newspapers, a pamphlet or two, and various papers. He is seated to the left of the desk which is right center. He is fully, impeccably dressed in a suit. He has bushy, gray hair and a pronounced mustache curled at its ends with mustache wax.)
There is a fellow in Mexico whom I wish to observe. His name is Pancho Villa, and it is said that he is fomenting a revolution. What is a revolution? You may tell your readers this: "Revolution...an abrupt change in the form of misgovernment. Revolutions are usually accompanied by a considerable effusion of blood, but are accounted worth it - this appraisement being made by beneficiaries whose blood had not the mischance to be shed.' Late this year I shall go and observe Mr. Villa's revolution.(He stands and picks up and admires the skull.)
So "...if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico - ah, that is euthanasia!"(He replaces the skull and sits.)
After all, "Death is not the end, there remains litigation over the estate." In any case, "Nobody will find my bones."
Before my visit to Mexico and South America after that, there is a jaunt I must take to honor those men - and boys - who fell beside me or behind me or in front of me during that four year madness of the last century. I will visit those battlefields where I served, as did so many others, and where I survived - as so many others did not.
"My work is finished, and so am I." I will visit the ghosts of Chickamauga, Stones River, Shiloh, Nashville, and other fateful spots on the Southern map. I "...never amounted to much since then." My stories of that great struggle stand for what I have "...amounted to."
"My wants are few, and modest, and my royalties give me quite enough to live on. There isn't much that I need, and I [will] spend my time in quiet travel. For the last five years I haven't done any writing. Don't you think that after a man has worked as long as I have that he deserves a rest? But perhaps after I have rested I might work some more - I can't tell, there are so many things ...(His eyes take on a faraway look.)
"...so many things that might happen between now and when I come back." My tour of the battlefields will take several weeks. "My trip [to Mexico and South America] might take several years, and I'm an old man now."
When that "...by-product of the arts of peace", War came, I wasn't quite nineteen. I wasn't doing anything in particular with my life. So I enlisted to become a hired assassin for my country. By my nineteenth birthday I had already traveled farther than I ever had before, to western Virginia - not yet its own state known today as West Virginia - and I had already fought the first of many battles during my careers - on the battlefield and off.
There were men who could have written effectively about that great calamity, but who chose other occupations during this time -- malingerers, they were. Howells, Adams, James, and Clemens spent the war in European drawing rooms, Back Bay students' quarters, or a Nevada mining camp. And Crane! Why he wasn't even born until after that four year death march had ended.
I signed up for three months with the 9th Indiana Volunteers, and then reenlisted for three more years.
My military experience, which ended with a near mortal head wound, was the single most important time of my life. I experienced horrors unspeakable. I witnessed stupidity by those in charge that I could not have thought possible. I gaped at the disregard for human life played out on those chessboards of a few yards of pasture. A man is a wholly different creature after that. He must be.
I am.(Pause. He rises and crosses to center stage.)
"Ours is a Christian army," so he said
A regiment of bangomen who led.
"And ours a Christian navy," added he
Who sailed a thunder-junk upon the sea.
Better they know than men unwarlike do
What is an army, and a navy too.
Pray God there may be sent them by-and-by
The knowledge what a Christian is, and why.
For somewhat lamely the conception runs
Of a brass-buttoned Jesus firing guns.
Both a boy from Indiana who might have been inclined to worship Jesus and a boy from South Carolina who had the same proclivity were told they were fighting for the preservation of their nation in the name of the same God!
"To face firearms is one of the commonest incidents in a soldier's life - firearms, too, with malevolent eyes blazing behind them. That is what a soldier is for." The gun becomes a part of the soldier as it did for Carter Druse who readied himself - himself that included the gun - to ambush his father, a scout for the other side about to gallop away to report the strategic movement of Carter's comrades in arms.(Heacts it out.)
"Broad awake and keenly alive to the significance of the situation, Druse now brought the butt of his rifle against his cheek by cautiously pushing the barrel forward through the bushes, cocked the piece, and glancing through the sights covered a vital spot of the horseman's breast. A touch upon the trigger and all would have been well with Carter Druse ... his forefinger sought the trigger; mind, heart and eyes were clear, conscience and reason sound ... as if they were a divine mandate, rang the words of his father at their parting: 'Whatever may occur, do what you conceive to be your duty.' He was calm now. His teeth were firmly but not rigidly closed; his nerves were as tranquil as a sleeping babe's - not a tremor affected any muscle of his body; his breathing, until suspended in the act of taking aim was regular and slow. Duty had conquered; the spirit had said to the body: 'Peace, be still, be still.' He fired."
(He crosses to his desk and sits in the chair left of it.)
O Father of Battles, pray give us release
From the horrors of peace, the horrors of peace!
We know there is but one ultimate reason for war - power. And the greed for it is so great that every so often we have a convulsion as a response to "... the horrors of peace ..." and that spasm is called war.
We may convulse because we perceive the need for more land, or spices, or gold. Perhaps we come to believe that "they" need forcible instruction in how properly to govern themselves, how to treat others among them, how and what to worship.
We must admit to ourselves that peace, in national, as "In international affairs, [is but] a period of cheating between two periods of fighting."(He rises and crosses to down left.)
So we must, periodically, go to war. Well, the boy-men, and the young men of us mostly go to war. But we are all of us affected. Women, children, and the elderly. The war razes towns and farms and takes away or returns to us broken, our sons, brothers, lovers, and fathers. Those of us not in uniform are the detritus of war.
And sometimes a child must observe the ravages of war on the innocent - even the innocent of his own family. And that ravages him - for life.(Trancelike.)
"His little world swung half around; the points of the compass were reversed. He recognized the blazing building of his own home!
"For a moment he stood stupefied by the power of the revelation, then ran with stumbling feet, making a half-circuit of the ruin. There, conspicuous in the light of the conflagration, lay the dead body of a woman - the white face turned upward, the hands thrown out and clutched full of grass, the clothing deranged, the long dark hair in tangles and full of clotted blood. The greater part of the forehead was torn away, and from the jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles - the work of a shell.
"The child moved his little hands, making wild, uncertain gestures. He uttered a series of inarticulate and indescribable cries - something between the chattering of an ape and the gobbling of a turkey - a startling, soulless, unholy sound, the language of a devil. The child was a deaf mute.
"Then he stood motionless, with quivering lips, looking down upon the wreck."
In the end, there are no innocents in war. All of us struggle against being destroyed. All of us struggle against the enemy - war itself. All of us are combatants.
If man is unique in his savage practice of periodic war, he is also unique in his savage requirement for consistent humor. And sometimes these two traits intersect. "... men awaiting death on the battlefield laugh easily, though not infectiously."
The humor of the battlefield is dark and ironic. After all, a battle is "... A method of untying with the teeth a political knot that would not yield to the tongue." fought by soldiers who train while being housed in a "Barrack [or] A house in which soldiers enjoy a portion of that of which it is their business to deprive others."(He crosses down right.)
After all, "A good deal of nonsense used to be talked about the heroism of General Garfield, who, caught in the rout of the right [at Chickamauga], nevertheless went back and joined the undefeated left under General Thomas. There was no great heroism in it; that is what every man should have done, including the commander of the army. We could hear Thomas' guns going - those of us who had ears for them - and all that was needful was to make a sufficiently wide detour and then move toward the sound. I did so myself, and have never felt that it ought to make me President."
"This disagreeable phenomenon of self-magnification makes nearly all personal narratives of military service practically valueless."
And gave me much fodder for humorous commentary when I wrote about them.
But often, I didn't have to comment in order to glean macabre humor or irony from anecdotes of the battlefield.(He strolls to center stage, up left, and down left during these next anecdotes.)
Early in the war on Cheat Mountain in what is now West Virginia. "...we parted from [the enemy] in anger and returned to our own place, leaving our dead - not many.
"Among them was a chap belonging to my company, named Abbott: it is not odd that I recollected it, for there was something in the manner of Abbott's taking off. He was lying flat upon his stomach and was killed by being struck in the side by a nearly spent cannon-shot that came rolling in among us. The shot remained in him until removed. It was a solid round-shot, evidently cast in some private foundry, whose proprietor setting the laws of thrift above those of ballistics, had put his 'imprint' upon it: It bore, in slightly sunken letters, the name 'Abbott.'..."
It is not surprising then, that this most supreme of human follies - war - produces some of the most extreme examples of humor and irony.(He crosses down center.)
There's an unexplained energy that runs through a man or a group of men during the fury and folly of battle. Sometimes their actions are accounted by others to be a thing called heroism.
On July 11, 1861, I was involved in a skirmish at Laurel Hill in Virginia. We took shelter in a convenient clump of trees and traded fire with the rebels all afternoon. Shortly before nightfall "... a few dozen of us, who had been swapping shots with the enemy's skirmishers, grew tired of the relentless battle, and by a common impulse, I think without orders or officers, ran forward into the woods and attacked the Confederate works. We did well enough, considering the hopeless folly of the movement, but we came out of the woods faster than we went in, a good deal. This was the affair in which Corporal Dyson Boothroyd of Company 'A' fell with a mortal wound."
An Indianapolis JOURNAL reporter, about your age, sir, observed the action.(He crosses to the table and lifts and reads from a yellowed newspaper in the voice of a reporter.)
"Privates A. J. [sic] Bierce and Boothroyd Ninth Indiana Volunteers, advanced up the hill to within fifteen paces of the enemy's breastworks when Boothroyd was wounded in the neck by a rifle ball, paralyzing him. Bierce, in open view of the enemy, carried poor Boothroyd and his gun without assistance, fully twenty rods, balls falling around him like hail."(He puts the paper down.)
Valorous deed? Perhaps. Absurd and without meaning? Definitely. Boothroyd soon died. And I am told that when, later this year, I visit the battlefields of my youth, even as I attempt to find "... the very rock against which [Boothroyd] lay ..." I will find that the site of my "heroism" "is now a race track."
By the end of the month after a lavish banquet and dress parade in Indianapolis, our three months enlistments successfully concluded, most of us reenlisted. I know! I don't know why. Nineteen years old is my only possible explanation. By the end of the summer, I was promoted to sergeant and then to sergeant major - probably due to my folly of blind energy at Laurel Hill in rescuing Dyson Boothroyd's pitiable carcass.(He pauses. He sits wearily.)
It wearies me to talk about war, but there are two elements of soldiering that I think it is important to understand - bravery and retreat.
"Early in my military experience I used to ask myself how it was that brave troops could retreat while still their courage was high. As long as a man is not disabled he can go forward: can it be anything but fear that makes him stop and finally retire? Are there signs by which he infallibly knows the struggle to be hopeless? In this engagement, as in others, my doubts were answered as to the fact; the explanation is still obscure. In many instances which have come under my observation, when hostile lines of infantry engage at close range and the assailants afterward retire, there was a dead-line beyond which no man advanced but to fall. Not a soul of them ever reached the enemy's front to be bayoneted or captured. It was a matter of the difference of three or four paces - too small a distance to affect the accuracy of aim. In these affairs no aim is taken at individual antagonists: the soldier delivers his fire at the thickest mass in front. The fire is, of course, as deadly at twenty paces as at fifteen; at fifteen as at ten. Nevertheless, there is the 'dead-line,' with its well-defined edge of corpses - those of the bravest where both lines are fighting without cover - as in a charge met by a counter charge - each has its 'dead-line,' and between the two is a clear space - neutral ground, devoid of dead, for the living cannot reach it to fall there.
"I observed this phenomenon at Pickets Mill. Standing at the right of the line I had an unobstructed view of the narrow, open space across which the two lines fought. It was dim with smoke, but not greatly obscured: the smoke rose and spread in sheets among the branches of the trees. Most of our men fought kneeling as they fired, many of them behind trees, stones and whatever cover they could get, but there were considerable groups that stood. Occasionally one of these groups, which had endured the storm of missiles for moments without perceptible reduction, would push forward, moved by a common despair, and wholly detach itself from the line. In a second every man of the group would be down. There had been no visible movement of the enemy, no audible change in the awful, even roar of the firing - yet all were down. Frequently the dim figure of an individual soldier would be seen to spring away from his comrades, advancing alone toward that fateful interspace, with leveled bayonet. He got no farther than the farthest of his predecessors. Of the 'hundreds of corpses within twenty paces of the Confederate line,' I venture to say that a third were within fifteen paces, and not one within ten.
"It is the perception - perhaps unconscious - of this inexplicable phenomenon that causes the still unharmed, still vigorous and still courageous soldier to retire without having come into actual contact with his foe. He sees, or feels, that he cannot. His bayonet is a useless weapon for slaughter; its purpose is a moral one. Its mandate exhausted, he sheathes it and trusts to the bullet. That failing, he retires. He has done all that he could do with such appliances as he has."(He sits back exhausted. Pauses. He rises and crosses to down center.)
The day of my "BIRTH ...[that] first and direst of all disasters." was June 24, 1842 in Meigs County, Ohio. I was born in the ramshackle religious community of Horse Cave Creek, the youngest of ten children, to Marcus Aurelius and Laura Bierce. My father amused himself by giving each of his progeny a name beginning with the letter "A" - Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, and then I arrived - Ambrose. He sampled many experiences that could possibly support such a brood and a wife. At various times he was a farmer, shopkeeper, property assessor, and even, in one of those ironies to which our species seems addicted, a county overseer of the poor. But he did love books. Had a substantial collection. Because of him I became acquainted with the enduring consolations of serious literature. We moved to Kosciusko County, Indiana where I went to school until I was fourteen.
The less said of my boyhood, the better, but indeed, something must be said of it. My father did not spare the rod. But I suppose we must appreciate such upbringings, for "Had not our pious parents administered daily rebukes with such foreign bodies as [t]he[y] could lay their hands on, we might have grown up a Presbyterian deacon. Look at us now!"
Some critics make a lot of hay out of the depictions of parents - or the death of parents - in some of my stories. They're just stories!(He crosses to the table, picks up a volume, and turns to the selections from which he reads in different voices.)
It is my fictional narrator who opens "My Favorite Murder" with this droll statement of exposition: "Having murdered my mother under circumstances of singular atrocity, I was arrested and put upon my trial, which lasted seven years."(He sits and replaces the volume.)
I am partly a teller of tales, not an indulgent scribbler attempting to come to terms with the discontents of my childhood. In all my endeavors I attempt to uncover what is often the unpleasant truth with a "...calm disapproval of human institutions in general, including all forms of government, most laws and customs, and all contemporary literature; enthusiastic belief in the Darwinian theory, intolerance of intolerance, and war upon every man with a mission ... human suffering and human injustice in all their forms to be contemplated with a merely curious interest, as one looks into an anthill."
I am an occasional poet - would-be poet, who, unlike Mr. James Whitcomb Riley, a fellow Hoosier who presents a boyhood, not in any rural Indiana that ever existed, but in a fairy land of his own trite creation, writes of his own Indiana farm boyhood, in part, like this:
...the malarial farm, the wet fungus grown wildwood,
The chills then contracted that since have remained.
The scum-covered duck pond, the pigsty close by it,
The ditch where the sour-smelling house drainage fell;
The dark, shaded dwelling, the foul barnyard nigh it ...
It is a far more accurate depiction than that of Mr. James Whitewash Riley's.At fifteen, I left home with my parents' blessing. I banged around
for four years looking for my two awful vocations - as soldier and satirist. I lived for a time in Warsaw, Indiana, working as a printer's devil for the abolitionist newspaper, the NORTHERN INDIANAN.
Perhaps this is where I first observed that a "REPORTER [is] A writer who guesses his way to the truth and dispels it with a tempest of words."
Then I attended Kentucky Institute at Franklin Springs for a short time, quit that institution, and settled in Elkhart, Indiana, where I worked at various jobs.
January 25, 1865. The war was not yet over, but I was done with it: declared unfit for military service because of my head wound.
In 1867, my commission with the Fifth U.S. Infantry finally caught up with me at the Presidio in San Francisco. I opened it expectantly, confident of its being a captain's commission. But the commission was that of a second lieutenant. "Ingratitude more strong than traitors' arms, quite vanquished me. I resigned and remained in California." I wrote back, "I respectfully decline the appointment." From then on, The United States Army would have to get along without Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce.(He rises and crosses to center stage.)
Young man, care for the truth of your story. Often that truth will unearth injustice and your exposing of that injustice might come at a cost to you. Nevertheless, the truth is always the best story.(He reads in the voice of a sarcastic newspaper reporter.)
Johnny Chinaman, your race I hate,
Because you won't assimilate.
You say you will? I know you will,
And so, my lad, I'll hate you still.
In San Francisco, especially, the Chinese were a hated group of people against whom unspeakable acts were perpetrated. I, of course, spoke of them in my column.
"The other day the dead body of a Chinaman was found in an ally ..., and taken to the morgue for identification. Deceased was addicted to doing odd jobs about town for what he could get, but otherwise bore a good character. The body was found partially concealed under a paving-stone which was imbedded in the head like a precious jewel in the pate of a toad. A crowbar was driven through the abdomen and one arm was riven from its socket by some great convulsion of nature. As deceased was seen by two eight-hour men enjoying his opium pipe and his usual health just previously to the discovery of his melancholy remains, it is supposed he came to his death by heart disease."(He crosses down left.)
There were many - too many - examples of our species' cruel behavior towards some of our own, for me to report on and comment upon.(He reads in another newspaper reporter's voice.)
"Mr. F. Langren addressed the members of a Scandinavian Club, the other evening, in their mother tongue, advising them to 'roll up their sleeves and go for the Chinese.' I am not enamored of the Chinese, and Scandinavians are a very good class of citizens; but I do ardently hope that the first and each succeeding Scandinavian hand that is raised against the Chinese will be lopped off at the wrist."
"...I hope that every tongue that threatens [any group in this country] in a foreign language, or with a foreign accent, may succumb to the dissuasion of paralysis. The foreigner, naturalized or not, who has come here to quarrel with the principles and traditions, the laws and the treaties, under and by virtue of which he was himself admitted, would confer a favor by following the impertinent nose of him back to his country with all possible expedition. America has issued a general invitation: that may have been judicious or not - it is not for those to say who have accepted it. If we keep open house we do not need, neither will we tolerate, an intimation from any guest that the company is not sufficiently select."(He crosses down left.)
"I have no religious convictions. I do not care a copper for the Mormons. But I care a good deal for truth, reason, and fair play, and whenever I cease to be indignant at the falsehood , stupidity, and injustice that this harmless people have suffered at the hands of the brutal and brainless mob of scribblers... who find profit in 'denouncing' them I shall have had a longer life than I merited ...
"Every accusation against the Mormons in America I can parallel with an accusation against the Jews in Castile, the Parsees in Persia, the Waldenses in Piedmont, the Puritans in England and the Quakers in Massachusetts. The history of religions is a thesaurus of indictments, ready made to the hand of counsel for the persecution."(He crosses down right.)
"I have a sincere respect for the Mormons. Surviving one of the most hateful and sneaking aggressions that ever disgraced the generally straightforward and forthright course of religious persecution - an aggression that lacked alike the sanction of authority and the lustre of success - they dragged the feeble remnant of their dispirited body into the horrible wilderness, where, a thousand miles beyond the range of cupidity's most extravagant claim, they made a garden of abundance."
And even today we must contend with the persecution of a particularly Mormon practice - a practice we just cannot leave alone!
"The severely virtuous monogamist, contemplating his wreckage of miserable old maids, and satisfied with the goodness of his work, has got after the improper Mormon with another act of Congress. That malefactor is no longer to be permitted to run an unlimited wifery, except at considerable inconvenience, affecting his status as a citizen. And all because he is jealousy distrustful of the one-woman power.
"No doubt polygamy has its disadvantages and demerits, but could not something have been done to mitigate them by compromise? The policy of mutual concession is a good one, generally speaking, and surely the Mormons would cheerfully give up most of their wives, if the Gentiles would only take them ...
"Polygamy goes too far: there is no doubt of that. It should not be lawful, for example, to marry more than one brunette, or one blond, except, of course, in the case of twins. With a good pair of wives, one dark and the other fair, a man would be tolerably well guarded against the allurements of any outside symphony in pink-and-white, or nocturne in spit-curls; and the favored two, relieved from jealous ... fears, could bend their whole energies to protecting him from one another."(He pauses.)
"... belief is entitled to respect, and hypocrisy is not."
I have a belief: "... there is no connection between religion and morality... there is no such thing as religion ... morality is a sentimental fiction ..."
So I often found myself writing about the religious communities and their leaders. During much of my career, I had at least a weekly column to fill. And the churches and their clerics were so generous to me in that they always provided material for me - and pigs to skewer. Writing about human folly and cruelty and bungling was almost a sinecure. "... for what unspeakable horrors has society, from the first centuries of Christianity downwards, been indebted to the clerical class!"
And "Intelligent men and women, who keep their heads clear, do not think of clergymen as better than other good people but as an order of men specially devoted to the work of representing and cultivating in society a special set of virtues."
Which is not to affirm that clergymen necessarily live by those espoused virtues. For they are men. And often, all I needed to do to illustrate this was report about such instances as the one about ...(A newspaperman's voice.)
"The honorable member who was recently expelled by Congress... a clergyman of high social standing - a pillar of the church. We weep incessantly at the persecution of this amiable brother in Jesus. Has Congress no respect for consistent piety - no reverence for practical religion? Why we have more charity for the reverend gentleman ourselves, for we withhold his name - which is Whitmore - and conceal the real nature of his offense - which is thieving."
Some of these pious men anguish over theological subtleties.(He crosses down left.)
"A Lutheran clergyman at Pittsburg poisoned himself the other day because he could not make up his mind about a certain theological question...Whenever a theological question is too tough for us, we take a deck of cards and decide it directly and forever by turning a jack. In that simple and intelligent manner we have established a body of doctrine that would astonish a Bishop, but has proved of unspeakable comfort to ourselves. A red jack is always 'yes,' a black one 'no.' You state one of two antagonistic interpretations, shuffle the cards thoroughly and keep drawing off the top of the pack till you come to your answer. In that way we have proven that hell is hot, that there is no heaven, and that the wicked have no souls." ("We believe the soul is immortal, though we do not clearly know what a soul is.") "We have likewise ascertained that the devil was baptized by immersion, that sprinkling is a swindle, that Peter's real name was Hiram Johnson, that Abraham's bosom was a mountain in the Mesopotamia, that John the Baptist's locusts and wild honey were grasshoppers and molasses, that the doctrine of election is perfectly ridiculous, that the mystery of Redemption is sublime but unintelligible, that Calvinism is a nice thing for an early tea party, that the first one hundred and fifty of the psalms of David were composed by some one else, and that the menagerie of the Apocalypse comprise more malformed and hideous beasts than were ever before collected under a single canvas. These are but a few of the results at which we arrived: the whole thing forms the most beautiful and perfect system of Theology the world has ever seen. A limited number of disciples will be taken. Terms moderate."
"Now faith, in the language of the Scriptures, is the evidence of things absurd - or words to that effect. It is not belief in things reasonable, for that is judgment."(As he crosses right and sits.)
In 1869, and today, and no matter where you are situated, there will be "A local divine... very much of the opinion that 'true religion is the abstract idealization of all that is good, intensified by the moral sense, and interpreted by a divine radiation acting upon the susceptible human organism.'"
This illustrates why "The modern tendency toward pious blather is the fruitful source of more than one half the satire which afflicts the religious press."
For example, "Father Hyacinthe says there are three religions in the world, the Jewish, the Catholic, and the Protestant, and all are equal in the eyes of God. There is a people in South Africa who worship the stomach of the hippopotamus. We suppose their religion is equal to the others in the eyes of God. At least it is equally sincere, and has the advantage of being simple and intelligent."
"An exchange says the Chinese missionaries are discussing the question whether parents who compress the feet of their children shall be admitted into the Church. The Flathead Indians, who compress the brains of their papooses, are admitted without question. The missionaries naturally regard it as a sin to cripple the feet of children, because that keeps them from walking to church, but the crippling of the brain is a virtue, for that impels the sufferer Zionward, as irresistibly as cropping the ears of a donkey forces him to seek the society of those similarly afflicted."(He rises.)
I first became a regular columnist at the SAN FRANCISCO NEWS LETTER in 1868. My column was called "The Town Crier." One of my targets was religion - school prayer, for example. In 1869 I scribbled in favor of the law that prohibited "... the chanting of the Lord's Prayer in the public schools. The Lord's Prayer has been brought into disrepute long enough by being snarled through the dirty noses of a hundred bad boys and preposterous girls. The Town Crier attributes every wicked action of his next-door neighbor's children directly to this barbarous practice. Down with the Lord's Prayer! - in schools." Then I offered my own self-written alternative prayer: "O, Lord; who for the purpose of this supplication we assume to have created the heavens and the earth before man created Thee; and who, let us say, art from everlasting to everlasting; we beseech Thee to turn Thy attention to this way and behold a set of the most abandoned scalawags Thou hast ever had the pleasure of setting eyes on. But in consideration of the fact that Thou sentest Thy only-begotten Son among us, and afforded us the felicity of murdering Him, we would respectfully suggest the propriety of taking into heaven such of us as pay our church dues, and giving us an eternity of exalted laziness and absolutely inconceivable fun. We ask this in the name of Thy Son whom we strung up as above stated. Amen."
(He has delivered this with his hands clasped in prayer and his eyes closed and his head tilted toward Heaven. Pause.)
Well! Letters started coming! People gave me nicknames - not entirely fond ones: The Rascal with the Sorrel Hair (I had not yet attained the distinguished hue of my present mane); The Diabolical Bierce; The Laughing Devil, and my favorite, The Wickedest Man in San Francisco!
Eventually, there was just no choice. I had to live up to another one of my favorite nicknames given to me by Arthur McEwen, a pretty good newspaperman himself. Almighty God Bierce had to proclaim:(He crosses to center stage, where he is bathed in a circle of blue light.)
THE NEW DECALOGUE
Have but one God: thy knees were sore
If bent in prayer to three or more.
Adore no images save those
The coinage of thy country shows.
Take not the Name in vain. Direct
Thy swearing unto some effect.
Thy hand from Sunday work be held -
Work not at all unless compelled.
Honor thy parents, and perchance
Their wills thy fortunes may advance.
Kill not - death liberates thy foe
From persecution's constant woe.
Kiss not thy neighbor's wife. Of course,
There's no objection to divorce.
To steal were folly, for tis plain
In cheating there is greater gain.
Bear no false witness. Shake your head
And say that you have "heard it said."
Who stays to covet ne'er will catch.
An opportunity to snatch(The blue light fades to black.)
END ACT ONE
Go to: ACT TWO