Almighty God Bierce
the AMBROSE BIERCE site
ALMIGHTY GOD BIERCE
A Monologue in Two Acts
by Ed Scutt
(Bierce is seated at the desk in the dark. As lights come up slowly, he sings to the tune of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee.")
My country, 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of felony,
Of thee I sing -
Land where my fathers fried
Young witches and applied
Whips to the Quakers' hide
And made him spring.
My knavish country, thee,
Land where the thief is free,
Thy laws I love;
I love thy thieving bills
That tap the people's tills;
I love thy mob whose wills'
All laws above.
Let Federal employees
And rings rob all they please,
Thy whole year long.
Let office-holders make
Their piles and judges rake
Our coin. For Jesus' sake,
Let's all go wrong!
"Politics ... [that] strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles." has always struck me as such an obvious target of satire. It is so easy to expose it as "The conduct of public affairs for private advantage." And to reveal the "Politician... [as] An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructures of organized society is reared."
It is the job of one party or another to put themselves in the place of being perceived as representing the majority. I have spent much energy thinking about and questioning in writing, the wisdom of majority rule.
"Now, majorities rule, not because they are right, but because they are able to rule. In event of collision they would conquer, so it is expedient for minorities to submit beforehand to save trouble. In fact, majorities, embracing as they do the most ignorant, seldom think rightly; public opinion being the opinion of mediocrity is commonly a mistake and a mischief. But it is to nobody's interest - it is against the interest of most - to dispute with it."
I am convinced that what I wrote in 1881 applied to many or most communities in this republic of ours, and, indeed continues to apply today.(He reads in a newspaper reporter's voice.)
"... the result of the municipal election will be known - whether we are to be robbed by one set of thieves or by another. I confess I don't appreciate the difference; the important fact is that we shall be robbed. In the fifteen years that I have known San Francisco there has not been an honest administration of the city's affairs."
And in this republic of ours, every four years we carry on this circus on a national scale. "... in hired halls by breathing the riddances of one another's lungs while brainless orators bespatter [us] with spittle." I ask you to consider how you "Make of yourselves asses of superior asinity - asses for Cleveland or asses for Blaine; it is all one - the important thing is to be an ass.
"Do you know, Johnny Voter, that you are a dupe? Does it penetrate your poor understanding that every time you throw off the top of your head to give tongue for the man of another man's choice the worthy persons who keep the table in the little game of politics are affected with merriment in the cuffs of them? Have you ever a downlight of suspicion that in the service of their purpose your wage is their derision, your pension their silent contempt? O, you will uphold a principle, will you, you hearty - you will stand in to avert the quadrennial peril to the country, you will assist in repelling the treasonable attempt of one half of its inhabitants whose interest (obviously) lies in its destruction. You will be a 'Republican' - or a 'Democrat'; you will be it diligently, loudly and like the devil.
"I can only plead that I never more than half understood, but did always wholly condemn, 'government of the people, by the people, and for the people.'
"The republic has the lowest aim of all forms of government: it proposes to accomplish only that modest... Utopia, 'the greatest good to the greatest number;' and it is with reference to this unexacting standard that it must be judged - and judged to have failed."
"When men perceive that nothing is restraining them but their consent to be restrained, then at last there is nothing to obstruct the free play of that selfishness which is the dominant characteristic and fundamental motive of human nature and human action respectively. Politics, which may have had something of the character of a contest of principles, becomes a struggle of interests, and its methods are frankly serviceable to personal and class advantage."
"In the struggle of interests which we call politics, I having no interests to be hurt or helped - have never thought it worthwhile to engage. Make me a manufacturer of something which can be produced more cheaply abroad and I will be a Protectionist - with a mental reservation regarding my raw material if I have to import it. Give me a wheat ranch and I will be a Free Trader. As soon as I own a silver mine I shall go in for the double standard, with silver an unlimited legal tender and the Government compelled to purchase - as much as it can get of it - preferably from me."(He rises and crosses to down center.)
And what if our government of the people can not come to terms with itself in matters such as Free Trade or Protection, War or Peace, allowing cheap immigrant labor or requiring employers to employ mostly domestic workers? Well, then we must recognize that there will be, indeed is, "... a general movement. Thousands - tens of thousands of armed men are drilling all over the United Stated to overthrow the government ... I tell you the good god, majority, means mischief. These people who outvoted you yesterday will have you by the throat tomorrow ... I tell you, my countrymen, there is no magic in words. Liberty, Freedom, Progress, Destiny - these are noble names; they 'mean' something. But they do nothing, and the People are buying guns."
And it is because of such spectacles that "I am unafflicted with a desire to catch the contagion of politics to the irreparable wrecking of my heart and mind. It is a pitch that defiles, a tope that endrunkens, a poison that penetrates the bones and gets into my hair. You may eat my leg off if I know a man zealous in politics whose judgement in any political matter I would prefer to that of a last year's pinecone... which has the honor to be why I am not a politician. I can afford to live under any kind of government which a majority of my countrymen is likely to afflict me with, but I cannot afford to have a muddled brain and an evil heart. I want those organs clear and clean."(He pauses. He turns his back on us and crosses to up center. Then he faces us again.)
I was not as clear in my thinking or my behavior when it came to the politics of the home.
In my column, I had written "The T. C. (Town Crier) does not hope to ever understand the sublime mysteries of the feminine sex. He knows that the female of the species is comely, and vivacious, and innocent, and pure, and holy; and that she will be like Satan when provoked thereto by opportunity. But she is very nice to kiss when you have nothing else to do."
And yet, on Christmas Day of 1871 I married Mary Ellen ("Mollie") Day, a Bay Area beauty, daughter of a wealthy mining engineer, after the most conventional of courtships. She was slight, attractive, dark haired, and she played the piano. She had a pleasant and open personality.(He crosses to the table, picks up a daguerreotype of Molly and looks at it ruefully.)
It was time for me to grow as a writer. In the summer of 1872, we left for England.
My first son, Day, was born in England about a year after Mollie and I married. "It [was] sweet to have a baby in the house; when clean and fresh, and sweet as new mown hay, they are nice to have about... excellent to soothe one's ruffled temper, for you may readily relieve your feelings by pinching them, and they can't tell."
My other son, Leigh, was also born in England, but not my daughter, Helen. By her birthday, October 30, 1875, we were all back in California, though I had stayed in England for a few months after Mollie, Day, and Leigh had returned.(He takes out a piece of note paper from a drawer. He holds it out as if it is odious.)
I fell asleep and dreamed that I
Was flung, like Vulcan, from the sky;
Like him, was lamed - another part:
His leg was crippled, and my heart.
I woke in time to see my love
Conceal a letter in her glove.
(He replaces the note and sits.)
I was not a particularly good husband or father. I moved in hard drinking literary and journalistic circles in the Bay Area. Almighty God Bierce had a world to improve with his acerbic pen, and that consumed most of my time and attention. And Mollie was still young and attractive.
And there was this mysterious "Danish gentleman" who was summering near us while I was attempting to effect my pine scented cure from asthma in the hills near San Francisco. He was quite taken with Mollie, who, at least in some ways, encouraged his attentions. He wrote her love letters. She permitted him to write love letters to her! And she kept them. And I found one.(He points to the drawer.)
It does not matter that it may not have been a "real romance," as she always claimed, or that she never saw him again after I left. She permitted him to write love letters to her, and I found one. I packed my bags, and I moved out - never to return. "I don't take part in competitions - not even in love." I refused to communicate with Mollie. Seventeen not particularly satisfying years of marriage had come to an end in all ways but the requisite legal documentation. Dear Helen, our youngest, was thirteen years old.
That was in the winter of 1888-1889. Eight years ago, Mollie died of a heart attack before divorce papers that she had filed just months before could be finalized.(He puts his elbows on the writing table, puts his head in his hands trying to collect himself. Eventually, he does, then speaks in a shaken voice that gets stronger as he continues.)
"To parents only, death brings inconsolable sorrow. When the young die and the old live, nature's machinery is working with the friction we name grief." Day was fifteen when he quit school and left home - as did another fifteen-year-old in the mid-west - in the generation before him. We had argued bitterly about his desire to strike out on his own to become a newspaperman like his father. He found work a hundred miles from us on something called the Red Bluff SENTINEL. Mollie tried to maintain contact and send him money, both of which Day rejected. I did neither. I knew a fifteen-year-old who had gotten to the point of leaving home would have none of his former life. I knew from experience.
Eventually, Day got involved with a girl - for that was all she was, as he was only a boy - a girl his own age. He became obsessed with her. Two days before they were to be married, she eloped with Day's best friend. This is not a dime novel. This really happened. To my - late son. They returned from their honeymoon where Day and his former best friend had a - yes, it was nothing but - an old-fashion western gun fight in the girl's mother's living room. The best friend was mortally wounded and Day's former intended was punctured in the ear and grazed on the head by the same bullet. My despondent son went up to his room and... put a bullet in his own head. Both boys lingered a few hours, but both died on the same day - July 27, 1889.(He pauses. He rises slowly and crosses up left.)
My second son, Leigh, took a job with Hearst's MORNING JOURNAL. He was becoming a philanderer. He needed "... discipline, control, and work... to learn by experience that life is not all beer and skittles." His romantic affairs were unseemly, not discreet. True, I had pandered to my carnal desires, but I was always discreet. And when, as had Day, Leigh fell in love with the daughter of his landlady, our relationship grew cool. In December of 1900, at the portal of a century of promise, Leigh set out to deliver Christmas presents on behalf of his current employer, the MORNING TELEGRAPH, to the poor children of Hell's Kitchen and the Tenderloin. Being Leigh, he could not resist the opportunity to visit a neighborhood saloon. While becoming inebriated, he gave away all the presents, depriving the poor children. He contracted a severe cold that turned into pneumonia.(He crosses to down left.)
We had reconciled only a few months before. And in March of 1901, I was summoned to what was to be the deathbed of my only surviving son. I found him "a very sick boy - a mere skeleton." He rallied - enough "to justify at least a hope." But failed again and lingered for eleven days. On March 31, he died - age twenty-six. Helen came from Los Angeles to handle the funeral arrangements. I endured the service as well as I could, returned to Washington, and took to my bed. "I am hit hard; more than one can guess - am a bit broken and gone gray of it all," I wrote to a friend. A year later I was still counting the days since Leigh's death, and my sandy blond hair had turned - to this.(He runs his fingers through his hair. He crosses to up center.)
No, I was not a particularly good husband or father.
And I was not always a particularly tolerant contemporary to many of the men and women who crossed my path.(He crosses to center stage. In a stentorian newspaper voice.)
"That sovereign of insufferables, Oscar Wilde ... has tossed off the top of his head and uttered himself in copious overflows of ghastly bosh. The ineffable dunce has nothing to say and says it - says it with a liberal embellishment of bad delivery, embroidering it with reasonless vulgarities of attitude, gesture and attire.
"The limpid and spiritless vacuity of this intellectual jelly-fish is in ludicrous contrast with the rude but robust mental activities that he came to quicken and inspire ... His lecture is mere verbal ditch-water - meaningless, trite and without coherence."(In his more conversational voice.)
Oscar Wilde assaulted us from March 26 - April 8 during his American tour of 1882.
"... the wicked wits of London ... have crowned and crucified [him] as King of the Cranks, [and he] has accepted the distinction in stupid good faith, and our foolish people take him at his word.
"In Mr. Wilde's lectures there is nothing to criticize, for there is nothing of his own. Every person familiar with the current literature of the last decade has read and re-read every one of his utterances a score of times;... The man who finds anything unfamiliar in Wilde's remarks may justly boast himself the possessor of a singularly superior quality of literary ignorance.
"Of Mr. Wilde as a poet... I think him a joke. I am not myself a poet, but with some critical knowledge acquired by loving study of the laws and limitations of the poet's noble art ... I affirm that Mr. Wilde's performances in that field have given him no right to be taken seriously."
"He makes me tired."(He pauses. He crosses to down center.)
Samuel Langhorn Clemens - Mark Twain - and I crossed paths on a few occasions. There are humorists, and there are wits. Humor is tolerant, tender; its ridicule caresses; wit stabs, beg[s] pardon - and turns the weapon in the wound. Humor is sweet wine, wit dry; we know which is preferred by the connoisseur." All Americans are humorous; if any are born witty, Heaven help them to emigrate! You shall not meet an American and talk with him two minutes but he will say something humorous, in ten days he will say nothing witty; and if he did your own, O most witty of all possible readers, would be the only ear that would give it recognition."
Mark Twain was an American. Mark Twain was a humorist. He tried wit once at a banquet in Boston in December, 1877. "Mark Twain's Boston speech in which the great humorist's coltish imagination represented Longfellow, Emerson and Whittier engaged at a game of cards in the cabin of a California miner, is said to have so wrought upon the feelings of the best literary society in that city that the daring joker is in danger of lynching. I hope they won't lynch him; it would be irregular and illegal, however roughly just and publicly beneficial. Besides, it would rob many a worthy sheriff of an honorable ambition by dispelling the most bright and beautiful hope of his life."(He pauses. He crosses to the desk and sits.)
I need to be seated in order to reflect upon this next person - she exasperates me so. She was one of the agitators for the female suffrage wherein women lobby and publicly demonstrate for "... the right to vote for the man of another man's choice ... to vote as some man tells her to ..."
In 1871 I commented on the appearance in San Francisco of "An ancient Eastern maiden ..." "... that hatchet-faced old angularity ..." "...one Susan B. Anthony by name ... This antique harridan is welcome ... we yearn for the shrill cackle of her cracked larynx ... the lively patter of her tireless tongue! How smilingly [we shall] impale her upon our pen and roast her in the blaze of a righteous ridicule!
"Miss Susan B. Anthony promises that if women shall be made voters they will accept the responsibility of war and take the field like men. There would be some advantage in this arrangement; there would be no necessity to go to any expense to furnish them with sabers and bayonets, nature having supplied them with a keener weapon, which they carry between their teeth ...
"... Miss Susan B. Anthony ... said in her lecture the other evening that in Boston ten thousand women earn a living by working as shoemakers. Then Boston may justly boast that it contains at least ten thousand better and more useful women than this he-hearted old termagant. And it isn't much of a boast." Miss Susan B. Anthony has not been with us for seven years. Her infernal movement remains.(During this next reflection, he wanders the stage, ending up, once again, seated at the desk.)
Much more interesting, if not more noble than other men, if indeed, at times more of a rascal than other men, was William Randolph Hearst. In 1886, at forty-three years old and suffering from asthma, jobless, I retired to a kind of resort "of last resort" on Howell Mountain to revive and find relief from my affliction.
I had been there a few months when a stranger turned up on my doorstep. "I found a young man, the youngest man, it seemed to me, that I had ever confronted. His appearance, his attitude, his entire personality suggested extreme diffidence. I did not ask him in, install him in my better chair(I had two) and inquire how we could serve each other. If my memory is not at fault I merely said, 'Well' and awaited the rest.
"'I am from the San Francisco EXAMINER,' he explained in a voice like the fragrance of violets made audible, and backed a little away."'Oh,' I said, 'you come from Mr. Hearst.' Then that unearthly child lifted its blue eyes and cooed: 'I am Mr. Hearst.'"
This boy explained that he had crossed San Francisco Bay to secure my writing services for the EXAMINER. He wanted the best in the west in a stable of journalists - had already secured the services of Petey Bigelow and Arthur McEwen (the man who would later dub me Almighty God Bierce). He wanted me to contribute a column or two of "Prattle" a week. I had breathed enough pine-scented air by then to last me a lifetime, so he caught my interest. After a promise that my work would not be subject to any inconvenient revisions, we shook hands.
Professionally, it sealed a contract that would pay handsome dividends for both of us for the next twenty years. I had an exhausting, exhilarating time during those twenty years. Some of my best stories, political satires, and other writings were published in the EXAMINER and other Hearst publications as well as elsewhere.
"If ever two men were born to be enemies, he and I are they... I never had the honor of his friendship and confidence ... He did not once direct nor request me to write an opinion that I did not hold, and only two or three times suggested that I refrain for a season from expressing opinions that I did hold. When they were antagonistic to the policy of the paper ... I do not know that any of his other writers enjoyed a similar liberty.
"As to Mr. Hearst's own public writings, I fancy there are none: he could not write an advertisement for a lost dog.
"If asked to justify my long service to journals with whose policies I was not in agreement and whose character I loathed I should confess that possibly the easy nature of the service had something to do with it. As to the point of honor (as that is understood in the profession) the editors and managers always assured me that there was commercial profit in employing my rebellious pen; and I - O well, I persuaded myself that I could do most good by addressing those who had greatest need of me - the millions of readers to whom Mr. Hearst was a misleading light. [Eventually, however,] I withdrew, and can now, without impropriety, speak my mind of him as freely as his generosity, sagacity or indifference once enabled me to do of his political and industrial doctrines, in his own papers."In illustration of some of the better features of this man's strange and complex character let this incident suffice. Soon after the assassination of Governor Goebel of Kentucky [in 1900]... I wrote for one of Mr. Hearst's New York newspapers the following prophetic lines:
The bullet that pierced Goebel's breast
Can not be found in all the West.
Good reason: it is speeding here
To stretch McKinley on the bier.
[President McKinley was assassinated in September of 1901.]
"Hearst's newspapers had always been ... rancorous toward McKinley, but no doubt it was my luckless prophecy that cost [Hearst] tens of thousands of dollars and a growing political prestige."
"The verses ... were published all over the country as evidence of Mr. Hearst's complicity in the crime ... During all this carnival of sin I lay ill in Washington, unaware of it; and my name, although appended to all that I wrote, including the verses, was not, I am told, once mentioned.
"I have never mentioned the matter to him, nor - and this is what I have been coming to - has he ever mentioned it to me. I fancy there must be a human side to a man like that, even if he is a mischievous demagogue."(He pauses.)
There were these "Rail-Rogues" headed by Collis P. Huntington. These four men inflicted many crimes on Californians in the building and maintaining of the railroads in our state. The securing of a seventy-five million dollar loan from the Federal Government as capital for building the railroad may have been the most heinous crime of all. And in 1896, Collis P. Huntington went to Washington to get Congress to pass a Funding Act, postponing for eighty years - long after these scoundrels would be dead - the debt of the loan.
Hearst shot off a telegram to me urging me to go to Washington and stop Huntington from obtaining Congressional passage of the seventy-five-million dollar Central Pacific Refunding Bill. Huntington had arranged for Congressional passage of the bill in advance.
"It is painful to observe ... his methods of affirming his rights to the property of others ..." I wrote of Huntington.
It seems he composed sham telegrams ostensibly sent from California even though he was, during this time, "...in the shadow of the Capital ..." These so-called telegrams..." such as:
"THE OPINION OF ALL CLASSES HERE IS LARGELY IN FAVOR OF THE CENTRAL PACIFIC FUNDING BILL."
"Their falsehood has been exposed in the committee by Representatives Bowers, Maguire and others, and will be exposed on the floor of both houses." This was promising to be the best bill money could buy. There was not very much interest in it, really. The Hearst newspapers were very good at creating interest where there was none before, and I had to get to work with alacrity.
I had to state our position clearly in this paper-and-ink campaign.
"There is in Washington, as elsewhere on this side of the continent, an acute public apathy regarding Mr. Huntington's methods, his aims, his accomplices and his cries for credit. The history of the crimes committed by him and his partners is almost unknown. Few persons one meets have a very definite knowledge of the Pacific Railroads, the enormous robberies connected with building and operating them, or the still greater robberies now in contemplation. To the general public here the various funding schemes now in discussions by a packed committee of the House are absolutely devoid of interest.
"... a Washington newspaper - should think it worthwhile to give columns of its space to the daily consideration of these matters ... "(He crosses to center stage.)
Eventually it was incumbent upon "... Mr. Huntington ... [to]... appear before the Senate Committee on Pacific Railroads ... he not only appeared, but took his hand out of all manner of pockets long enough to hold it up and be sworn. He wasn't asked if he knew the nature of an oath; it was assumed that he did.
"... All felt that the show did not meet the just expectations of the audience. He was nervous and in a visible tremor. His manner was distinctly apologetic, he had the air of one begging pardon for his existence and permission to prolong it. His speech, if such it may be called, was type-written and apparently unfamiliar. Frequently he got "stalled" in the middle of a sentence and had to make repeated rushes at what was ahead of him before he could have his way with it. Once he attacked a word five times before overcoming it. At times he was almost inaudible.
"The spectacle of this old man standing on the brink of eternity, his pockets loaded with dishonest gold which he knows neither how to enjoy nor to whom to bequeath, swearing it is the fruit of wholesome labor and homely thrift and beseeching the opportunity to multiply the store, was one of the most pitiable it has been my lot to observe."
"I wish every boy in the land could have been in that committee-room today and [have] seen what it may cost to be dishonestly rich."
I kept at it from February until May. In April I was able to report that "... Senator Morgan has at last succeeded in getting his minority report on Pacific railroads before the Senate if not the country ... "
And that "The opposition to the railroad bill is taking heart ... "
In late June, after the bill was defeated, there was a meeting held at Metropolitan Hall in California. They read a resolution. It stated:
"RESOLVED, That the thanks of this meeting and of the people of the entire Pacific Coast are due to 'The Examiner' and its Washington correspondent, Ambrose Bierce, for their faithful publication of all the information concerning, and invaluable services against, the funding infamy."(As he crosses to down center.)
Most of my work - columns, stories, poetry, or non-fiction - was social commentary through satire. And young man, I'd like to end this interview with a discussion of satire.(He delivers this piece with increasingly severe sarcasm.)
A local paper once said, "Satire should not be a saw, but a sword; it should cut, not mangle. O, certainly; it should be 'delicate.' Every man of correct literary taste will tell you it should be 'delicate'; and so will every scoundrel who fears it. If there is one main quality in satire to which everything should be subordinate which should be kept constantly in view as solely worthy of achieving, it is 'delicacy' - that is, obscurity - that is ineffectiveness. Your satire, my young [friend], should not mangle; our contemporary has told you it should not mangle. He has not explained why a thing that is a legitimate object of satire - that is a thing that is bad and worthy of extermination - ought not to be mangled; but it is doubtless true that it ought not. It ought only to be made to slightly wince - 'delicately.' A man who is exposed to satire must not be made unhappy - O dear, no! He must find it very good reading - a little pungent and peculiar, but upon the whole invigorating and breezy. Don't mangle him. If he is a thief, don't call him so by name, but insinuate darkly - and 'delicately' - that 'possibly some gentleman to whose outward seeming his own aspect conforms, might justly be suspected of confusion in his conception of meum and tuum.' Don't mangle the man, like that coarse Juvenal, and the horrid Swift, but touch him up neatly, like Horace or a modern magazinist. Then, in faith, you shall be in fashion, and every critic shall glow - 'delicately' - with admiration of your niceness and polish; and your victim shall give your censures into the hands of his young daughter to read to him, that he may be free to writhe. It was not long ago that the ATLANTIC gravely praised somebody's satire, because it was 'so subtle as to leave a half doubt of its intent!' What a jack-ass taste is this. Gad! Let us mangle!"
My occasional definitions, inserted into my columns and later collected as THE DEVIL'S DICTIONARY, allowed me to take on human behavior head to head. Including my own nature.
At this point in my life, I am pretty much alone. "ALONE, adj. In bad company."
I imagine you can say I was a critic-at-large.(He crosses to the desk, picks up a book, and turns to an entry in THE DEVIL'S DICTIONARY.)
"CRITIC, n. A person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody tries to please him."
Orrin Goof, in this same entry, describes our breed in this way:
There is a land of pure delight,
Beyond the Jordan's flood,
Where saints, apparelled all in white
Fling back the critic's mud.
And as he legs it through the skies,
His pelt a sable hue,
He sorrows sore to recognize
The missles that he threw.
So, you see, I can take as good as I give. I can review a book with perhaps the shortest, most lethal review ever written. It reads: "The covers of this book are too far apart." But Orin Goof and the other "poets" and "authorities" "cited" in THE DEVIL'S DICTIONARY - as well as the doggerel and commentary attributed to them - are all my inventions. And sometimes they criticize me and my ilk.(He pours a drink from the pitcher into a tumbler, drinks it and replaces the tumbler.)
Favorites. I have favorites, of course. "MONDAY, n. In Christian countries, the day after the baseball game. "HISTORIAN, n. A broad-gauge gossip." "SENATE, n. A body of elderly gentlemen charged with high duties and misdemeanors." "CONSERVATIVE, ... [one] who is enamored of existing evils ...", "LIBERAL, ... [one] who wishes to replace [the existing evils] with others."
You see, I've always felt that I've had this sacred - call it that, if you please - this sacred duty, if you will, to spare no one, or no group, in my contemplation of "... human suffering and human injustice." And human folly, "... with a merely curious interest, as one looks into an anthill." Over the years, what became THE DEVIL'S DICTIONARY gave me some of my best opportunities to do just that.
In it, I was able to comment on that frenzied anthill in spontaneous, swift strokes. It doesn't matter that Arthur McEwen, a pretty good newspaperman himself, quipped that the initials for my name - Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce - stand for "Almighty God Bierce." I can take as good as give - especially from a good writer. There are so few of us.(He places THE DEVIL'S DICTIONARY on the desk and picks up a pamphlet and crosses to center stage.)
Sometimes people don't recognize satire as satire, and the fun to be had when that happens is so interesting.
In 1877 Thomas A. Harcourt and William Rulofson and I had great fun - and success - concocting a literary hoax based on the San Francisco area rage for ballroom dancing. We wrote a little pamphlet entitled "The Dance of Death," condemning the waltz as being "an open and shameless gratification of sexual desire." Of course, we wrote it in prose as lush and libidinous as the dance itself.(He reads.)
"Let us take this couple for a sample. He is stalwart, agile, mighty; she is tall, supple, lithe, and how beautiful in form and feature! Her head rests upon his shoulder, her face is upturned to his; her naked arm is almost around his neck; her swelling breast heaves tumultuously against his; face to face they whirl, his limbs interwoven with her limbs; with strong right arm about her yielding waist, he presses her to him till every curve in the contour of her lovely body thrills with amorous contact ... his eyes, gleaming with a fierce, intolerable lust, satyr-like over her, yet she does not quail; she is filled with a rapture divine in intensity - she is in the malestrom of burning desire - her spirit with the gods."
But the delicious joke did not end with the publication and distribution of this piece under the pseudonym of William Herman. I "reviewed" it in the ARGONAUT as "a high-handed outrage, a criminal assault upon public modesty, an indecent exposure of the author's mind! From cover to cover it is one long sustained orgasm of a fevered imagination - a long revel of intoxicated propensities." I challenged Mr. Herman to acknowledge his authorship and come forward so that "Then he could be shot." "Dance of Death" was endorsed by a Methodist Church conference and sold eighteen thousand copies!(He crosses to and sits in the chair.)
And so, not only did I fight the fight over who or what is an appropriate subject of satire, but I had to fight the fight over what satire is.
The only talents I possessed were "... a knack of hating hypocrisy, cant, and all sham, and a trick of expressing [that] hatred. What wider field than San Francisco does God's green earth present? ... [and so, young man], be as decent as you can. Don't believe without evidence. Treat things divine with marked respect - don't have anything to do with them. Do not trust humanity without collateral security; it will play some scurvy trick. Remember that it hurts no one to be treated as an enemy entitled to respect until he shall prove himself a friend worthy of affection. Cultivate a taste for distasteful truths. And, finally, most important of all, endeavor to see things as they are, not as they ought to be."FADE TO BLACK
END OF PLAY
© 2003 by Ed Scutt
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