A Strange Folly
A one-act play.
Translation from Italian: Kay McCarthy.
The Popess Joan – a very beautiful, young woman.
Physician – a man of about thirty with a slight Neapolitan accent.
Scene : The interior of the Papal apartments during the Mediaeval period, the idea is rendered by means of a few essential elements: some chairs, a chest, a window thrown open upon a corner of Rome. The Popess Joan, seated near the window, is wrapped in copious, rich, brocade robes, the Papal tiara on her head, ready, it would seem, to take part in some solemn rite. She seems to have fallen asleep. The audience must not realise that she is a woman, but believe her to be simply a very young Pope. As the curtain rises the voices that people Joan’s dreams can be heard.
Child’s voice – Mutti… Mutti… Kommst du mit?
This call is repeated and mingles with the sound of the sing-song voices of other children chanting nursery rhymes in German and distorted fragments of Gregorian plain chant.
Physician – (Entering bashfully, clumsily dragging a cumbersome bag and other containers which suddenly clatter noisily to the floor. Joan wakes up with a start) Holy Father…
Joan – Who is it?
Physician – The Physician, your Holiness. The Papal Archiater is in bed with a liver complaint… don’t you recognise me? I’m his assistant…
Joan – What do you want?
Physician – I’ve been informed His Holiness has been unwell, that last night he was writhing with pain.
Joan – I feel better now.
Physician – Are your bowels empty? And your stomach, have you purged it, vomiting twice a week as prescribed? (He awaits an answer, but in vain) I must insist… We have observed a gradual imbalance of your bodily humours, an increasingly heavy step, a paler and paler complexion, frequent shortness of breath… all signs of an excess of bile… (Starting to get his instruments ready) A letting of the blood and a scammony clyster should suffice to set things right… Which would you prefer first? Shall we start with the blood?
Joan – Sit down, there’s time enough.
Physician – Perhaps you’d prefer my master to…
Joan – I have no preferences.
Physician – (Relieved) A tiny incision, you’ll feel no pain at all… (Quoting in a sing-song voice)
If blood flows from the Saving vein
Then many gifts you will obtain,
The voice, the heart, the chest and spleen
The liver, heartstrings, you will clean . .
Joan – Physician, I have seen you letting blood, drinking urine, sniffing excrement.
Physician – (Modestly) Science demands it…
Joan – But you don’t know a thing about my body, no physician has ever touched me. What a strange science yours is, strange indeed.
Physician – A matter of respect…
Joan – Of what?
Physician – Of your sacred person…
Joan – In what sense?
Physician – We are unworthy.
Joan – (Ironically) And my sacred blood?
Physician – What?
Joan – Why do you let it?
Physician – Contra dolorem!
Joan – I feel no pain, I’ve already told you so.
Physician – So what? It may come upon you when you least expect it. In my home town , Salerno, there is one of the greatest medical schools in the world. Students flock to it from everywhere : Arabs, Jews, Christians… They all sit down around a sectioned corpse, examining it, reasoning, seeking the cause of death. Illness must be nipped in the bud if we want to restore health and happiness.
Joan – But happiness is of the Kingdom of Heaven…
Physician – But we shall bring that kingdom down to earth! The body, your Holiness, is terribly strong, it does not surrender even in the face of death : the nails continue to grow, the hair to get longer, the muscles to contract… (Excited) Let us avail of this strength, hurl it against illness like a powerful thunder-bolt!
Joan – But illness does not always stem from the flesh… if the soul grieves, the body weeps with it. (She rises with difficulty, goes over to the window… The distant chiming of bells can be heard) Then? What is the use of rummaging inside corpses? The root lies elsewhere, in constant, burning, hankering desire…
Physician – What could you desire, Lord of the World?
Joan – Beauty…
Physician – What?
Joan – Joy…
Physician – (Going over to the window) Just look, the whole of Rome at your feet, ready to grant you much more…
Joan – (Hard) This city reeks of death, as if the past surfaced from the innermost depths of the earth, stretching its tentacles out in search of prey. At night I hear it slinking along the walls, slowly, without the least haste, devouring every puff of life… I lie perfectly still, without breathing, without praying, without weeping… only my heart wild with fear, but the voice fades away, beyond recognition… and death goes on its way, barely brushing me. (In the background the sound of a male children’s choir can be barely heard) And this murmur… like torn leaves… water running under ground, sourceless, relentless. Day and night, forever… hark, it’s louder now… it’s drawing nearer, can’t you hear it? (Growing upset she pulls off her head-dress and throws it away. The face, in strident contrast with the weight of the lavish clothing is beautiful, young, delicately moulded) Can’t you hear it?
Physician – I can hear the male children’s choir. Singing.
Joan – What else?
Physician – (Listening) Bells.
Joan – They’re not bells.
Physician – Ah no?
Joan – They are troubled angels, demons murmuring secret words, light, luminous… giving life to dreams, besieging the heart, suffocating it with desire. Stay here, they whisper , sleep, dream on, here you can do anything you please, without pain, what’s the use of reality, it’s empty, stupid, unworthy of you… surrender your soul to us, we’ll bestow the strength of the gods on it… (Looking at him impatiently) Are you listening to me?
Physician – (Amazed) I’m listening, yes… but it’s mere fancy.
Joan – I know.
Physician – Then rid yourself of it!
Joan – How?
Physician – There’s no use in shades, destroy your nightmares, return to life!
Joan – It’s impossible, they won’t let me go… Dreams are tireless henchmen, they cannot bear to be abandoned, they dig in their claws and wait, patiently, until the wounds are so deep that we are obliged to give in… (Upset) Here they are again, they’re coming back, they think I want to rebel against them… help me!
Physicians – I’ll order you some sage tea. Salvia salvatrix, naturae conciliatrix…
Joan – (Furious) You and your messes, your rigmaroles…
Physician – (Shaking his head, he sighs) Your Holiness… your young spirits have been stifled, made arid, constrained by submission. If you were not the holiest and most powerful man on earth, you
would not be standing here pining with loneliness. You would be dashing through the woods, hunting with your companions, giving vent to your energies, riding, duelling, rollicking, tumbling in the beds of Rome’s loveliest ladies…
Joan – Physician, the Pope does not tumble…
Physician – I know that. Neither does he fight.
Joan – Nor hunt.
Physician – Nor dash through the woods.
Joan – Nor has he companions.
Physician – Always celebrating Masses.
Joan – Confessing.
Physicians – Ordaining priests.
Joan – Offering his foot to be kissed.
Physicians – And dying of melancholy.
Joan – But another younger one will come… clothe himself in gold, purple, jewels, so splendid that his light will shine afar and all the peoples of the earth will call him blessed…and remain the prisoner of his beatitude until death.
Physician – And is there no remedy?
Joan – No, there is no remedy.
Physician – Did you ever think of… isn’t it possible to…
Joan – I want to tell you a story about something that happened in Germany, my homeland…
Physician – You say it in such a fashion…
Joan – What fashion?
Physician – Like one who’d left his heart there.
Joan – I always bring my heart with me.
Physician – (Inspired) Sooner or later the homeland calls…
Joan – In what way?
Physician – What?
Joan – In what way does it call?
Physician – A memory… an odour… a melody…
Joan – It’s painful to listen to you.
Physician – (Offended) Why?
Joan – Useless words… always the same .
Physician – I’m a simple man, you must not expect too much.
Joan – (Imitating him, mockingly) Simple. Yes, that with all his heart loves the marvellous homeland where he knew an enchanting and remote happiness.
Physician – All feel nostalgia for the place where they were born.
Joan – Not I.
Physician – (As before) That’s what you think.
Joan – I hate Germany.
Physician – But when you’re alone you speak German.
Joan – How do you know?
Physician – I have heard you.
Joan – Have you been spying on me?
Physicians – For scientific purposes, naturally.
Joan – Which?
Physician – What?
Joan – Purposes?
Physician – I saw you were tired, sad, as if life no longer interested you. I wanted to prevent you from…
Joan – Prevent me?! You?! A servant, a person who’s come up in the world sectioning corpses…
Physician – That’s not true.
Joan – Hold your peace! One word from me…
Physician – And I’ll be sent to Caledonia to tend herds, I know that.
Joan – Don’t fool yourself.
Physician – But you’d lose a friend.
Joan – You’re playing with fire, Physician.
Physician – You consider me stupid.
Joan – Poor of spirit.
Physician – That’s no compliment.
Joan – Yours shall be the Kingdom of Heaven. What more can you ask for?
Physicians – The Pope’s esteem.
Joan – You’re my Physician, aren’t you?
Physician – But you didn’t choose me.
Joan – That’s true (Pause) I’m choosing you now. (They look at each other in silence. Joan sighs) It’s not true that I don’t think of my homeland… I dream of it every night and when I reawaken I feel like dying of nostalgia.
During the following dialogue, the Popess slowly removes her jewels, her vestments and carelessly lets them fall to the floor, as if performing a rite indispensable for the recovery of her dignity.
Joan – (Softly) Once upon a time, in Mainz, there was a little girl, as beautiful as an angel, her eyes as blue as corn-flowers.
Physician – Ah, the Celtic type… the kind Caesar liked too.
Joan – But she didn’t like herself and cried desperately, cursing the day she was born. And do you know why? Because she wanted to be a boy.
Physician – But that’s absurd.
Joan – No, it’s not.
Physician – If she was as beautiful as you say…
Joan – Her beauty didn’t interest her.
Physician – She must be an adult by now, she’s probably changed her mind…
Joan – At sixteen she cut her hair short and dressed in men’s clothing. But that wasn’t enough.
Physician – I think…
Joan – But don’t you understand… she saw the whole world before her and wanted to know it, embrace it with all her passion! Everything fascinated her : the harmony and movement of the stars, the sequence of the seasons, the mystery of numbers, the origin and ultimate end of men… her brothers studied in Naples, but she was not allowed to follow them and could merely imagine herself there, sitting among the students listening to those great philosophers. She used to invent debates, create new theories, then refute them immediately afterwards, beside herself, lost in a dream…
Physician – What a strange folly…
Joan – Folly, yes, that’s what they called it, I remember it well (Smiling) Physicians have no imagination. How do you cure a hysterical girl? What’s the oldest, most violent, most despicable way?
Physician – A husband? (Joan nods with a grimace of disgust) What’s so despicable about that? It’s right, scientific… That girl’s bodily humours had not been bridled, but there was an excess of astral bile, with a consequent inclination towards melancholy. Maternity fortifies the elements of fire and air which restore the balance between earth and water.
Joan – Words, Physician.
Physician – Science, Your Holiness.
Joan – Had she been born a boy they’d have considered her a genius!
Physician – But she was a woman.
Joan – And condemned to prostitution to bridle her intelligence. Is that not so?
Physician – But we were talking of matrimony…
Joan – Yes, but not of love.
Physician – No matter, she had to be forced.
Joan – What kind of man are you?
Physician – A man of common sense.
Joan – Anyway, she ran away from home, went to Athens.
Physician – Athens? How could a woman all on her own…
Joan – She renounced her womanhood.
Physician – You justify her because pardon is the stuff of your calling…
Joan – But what is there to be pardoned? She was following a vocation, a God-given boon.
Physician – God cannot want His creatures to go against their nature.
Joan – Nor can he want that men torment them either.
Physician – Some torments heal.
Joan -Then why did you choose to be a physician and not a merchant, or a priest?
Physician – My father was a physician.
Joan – And?
Physician – That was good enough for me.
Joan – You hadn’t got the courage.
Physician – I was not proud.
Joan – An ordinary man…
Physician – A normal man.
Joan – There’s no virtue in that.
Physician – Perhaps not, but I’m content with my life. No regrets, no remorse.
Joan – I’m glad for your sake.
Physician – I have always respected and honoured my family.
Joan – Exemplary…
Physician – But I don’t think I deserve to be rebuked for that.
Joan – Indeed, so why get upset?
Physician – Because you, in all your… goodness, consider a proud, corrupt woman a paragon! (Alarmed) Forgive me, I didn’t… forgive me…
Joan – (Lost in her thoughts) Corrupt… no. Sadness corrupts, boredom, the meaningless flow of hopeless days…But those years in Athens were utter happiness, full of beauty, reaching the loftiest peaks thought can touch. It was like living in one big, free, peaceful family… the teachers loved to laugh, sing, play with the children… and their gaze reached the heart’s very core. (Remembering) Where are you from, boy? You’re so very young, I’ve seen you weep, perhaps you still need your mother to fondle and hug you… open up your heart, let yourself go, what good is wisdom if you are unable to love yourself ? (She sighs) Happy years, they flew so fast… so light, impossible to tie down, fix in the memory, a mere glimmer, then nothing more… Then when it had no further secrets to reveal, Paradise shuts its gates. Cry, despair, implore… of no avail. You must leave, young man. Rome awaits you, now you shall teach, and the greatest teachers shall come and listen to you…
Physician – To Rome? She came to Rome?
Joan – Yes.
Physician – Impossible, I’d have known.
Joan – Everyone knew the philosopher Angelicus.
Physician – Angelicus. Yes, I heard tell of him… was it he?
Joan – It was she.
Physician – But no, you must be mistaken, he became a cardinal… they say he was an exceptional man, above the norm, so much so that… (He looks at her, confused and troubled)
Joan – So much so that they elected him Pope (She allows the last mantle to slide to the floor and stands there in a tunic which reveals the blooming body of a woman nine months pregnant)
Physician – (Petrified for a moment, he shouts, then runs off to one of the corners of the proscenium, trembling) I repent, I’m sorry… I’m sorry, I repent for all my sins…
Joan – Physician…
Physician – (With a yell, he rushes off to the other corner of the proscenium)
Et ne nos inducas… sed libera nos a malo…
Joan – (Advancing in his direction) Calm down…
Physician – (Shouting) Apage, Satan!
Joan – Don’t be such an idiot!
Physician – (His teeth chattering) The Devil… the Anti-Christ… the end of the world. .
Joan – (Icily) Mind what you say! How dare you offend the sacred person of the Pope?
Physician – (Thumping his breast) Ora pro nobis peccatoribus…
Joan – (Disgusted) I was wrong, I should never have trusted someone like you. All you’re good for it blood-letting and sniffing excrement.
Physician – (As before) Ora pro nobis.
Joan -Yes, ora pro nobis, pray for us, because you’re a part of all this too.
Physician – (Calming down a little and raising his head) Me? No… I’m going to denounce you. Right away.
Joan – Yes, indeed. And what are you going to say?
Physician – The Pope… is a female!
Joan – And they’re going to ask you how long it is you’ve been the Pope’s physician.
Physician – Three years…
Joan – And why have you kept such a secret… for such a long time?
Physician – (Distraught) I didn’t know! I swear I didn’t!
Joan – And who’s going to believe you?
Physician – Nobody…?
Joan – They’ll tie you to a horse’s hooves and drag you through the streets of Rome until all that’s left is a heap of bare bones.
Physician – (He starts to cry) I don’t want to die, I don’t want…
Joan – (Relentless) You’ve been negligent in your profession, superficial, stupid, foolish… if by chance you do save your life you’ll still have to find yourself another calling. In Rome, there’s talk… in the public squares, in people’s homes, in confession-boxes… the Pope’s physician, yes, seemed such a nice young man, so skilled, graduated from Salerno… a great school… great… but, he doesn’t examine his patients, he simply observes them from afar, doesn’t even know whether they’re males or females… A disaster. They’ll laugh behind your back, tell obscene stories… so funny that the comedians will invent a new mask : the physician from Salerno. You’ll be forced to emigrate, but where to? Will there be a corner in the whole world where the story’s not been heard? Numidia . . Noric… Caledonia, who knows… certain scandals reach such incredible places… merchants, travellers will they knew you, give detailed accounts of your trial, tell of how you yelled when being tortured…
Physician – What torture?
Joan – Don’t you know what Roman justice is like?
Physician – Yes, but this case… is so straightforward, I’ll tell the truth, say that you were deranged from early childhood, tell of how you used a ruse to enter the Athenian school, how you blinded and seduced the Roman clergy with your evil wiles…
Joan -They’ll have to torture you all the same.
Physician – (Unsure of himself) Why?
Joan – To find out the name.
Physician – What name?
Joan – The child’s father’s.
Physician – How should I know? Let them ask you about that!
Joan – Must I go into gory detail, Physician? If you don’t speak they’ll crush your tongue into a mess of bloody pulp…
Physician – (He touches his mouth, horrified) Don’t say that, you frighten me.
Joan – You can always try the story about the Anti-Christ, say I am a witch, that Satan is my lover…
Physician – Satan, yes…
Joan – In Germany they’d take you at your word… they’re just mad about fables, they’re simple, trusting. But in Rome… people have less imagination, they’re harder, used to keeping the reins of fate firmly hand, the world under their heel. Here they don’t believe in fairy-tales, or else they take off all the trimmings. The Popess is Satan’s whore? Come now, that’s going too far, it must have been someone whom she could see without any difficulty, without arousing suspicion, maybe, who knows… the Physician.
Physician – The Physician?!
Joan – By way of example.
Physician – Infamous… calumny… I’m well-known, highly respected here… in Rome, in Naples…everyone can bear witness to… my life’s as transparent as spring-water!
Joan – Private vices… who can imagine those?
Physician – But what wrong have I done you? Why do you wish me dead?
Joan – Come now, be manly, accept your fate with blessed resignation. It won’t be that bad! You’ll go down in history… one way or another…
Physician – Save me… tell the truth…
Joan – Who do you think would be interested? They’ll kill me before I can even open my mouth… I’m sorry.
Physician – You’re… sorry?!… No, no… it can’t be, it can’t end up this way… (He picks up his bag, looks around for his instruments) Now, I’m going to wake up, I’ll just gather up my things and be on my way. A respectful bow to the Pope, your blessing and away… everything in order.
Joan – We’re too young to die.
Physician – A nice thought, really. It’s plain you studied in Athens.
Joan – We should leave, disappear…
Physician – Yes, indeed, there’s nothing to it. (He stops, throws his things angrily to the ground again) But I say : you turned the world up-side-down to become what you are and then… Couldn’t you just have gone on being the Pope, in all tranquillity? What else did you need?
Joan – A child.
Physician – And you say it, just like that!
Joan – How should I say it?
Physician – I don’t know.
Joan – Don’t forsake me.
Physician – Look here, what do you want of me?
Joan – (Down on her knees) Physician, do you want to help Pope John the Eighth to give birth?
Physician – But what are you doing? This is horrible, disgusting… (Shrinking back brusquely) Have you no dignity left? Remember who you are!
Joan – Who am I? Nothing… I have never been anything… an empty, inappropriate form, unfamiliar even to myself. I’d never have believed… not even for one moment… that someone could have pity… I thought I didn’t need it… you edge away an inch a day and then you walk alone… in a void…no air. . no sound… you start dying… a little at a time… the eyes, the hands, the heart… all drop off in silence… as if they no linger belonged to you… autumn leaves, without rebirth…lost forever (Pause). I’ve dreamed of returning home… of seeing once again the mountains, the river, always the same… as I left them… my hair shining in the sun, long, tangling with my legs… pulling me down amid the flowers, my mouth against the warm, perfumed earth… my clothes torn… the jewels rolling on the ground… and such how hard to rise again… running back home… faster and faster… perhaps there’s still time… perhaps I can be loved… my brothers are waiting for me to come back… how they must have wept, prayed… but it’s all over , now… I’m back. Vati! Mutti! Wo seid ihr? Where are you? Mamma, open the door… I’m back, I beseech you! (She bursts out crying) But, there’s nobody left, the place is empty… locked… finished.
Physician – (Clearing his throat, he sighs, huffs: undecided, torn between two minds) And stop crying! What’s the use? First, you can’t recover the past… so it’s better to leave it in its closed in its den, where it can do no further harm… a sound goodbye to it and that’s that.
Joan – I’m tired, and I’ve got no courage left.
Physician – What courage… you speak too much, culling yourself in words, building castles, filling your mouth to suffocation…
(He brushes her with a caress) They are of no further use to you… leave them to their own desserts…and return to life.
Joan -It’s too late.
Physician – Come now? What are you saying? What will come of us? (Joan looks at him, surprised) Ah no, this is a bad beginning, in the old fashion… The beginning is different, no comments, in perfect silence. You leave this place and go out into the open air, into the sun…away from the mould, the velvet, the incense. You have no idea of what children are like : they want to be content, they’re born with the idea of having a good time, and woe betide anyone who tries to contradict them. (Joan smiles) this child will be like its mother… a lovely as an angel… with eyes as blue as corn-flowers.
Insistent knocking on the door. Joan starts.
Voice off – Father of Fathers, the procession is about to start. Rome awaits to pay you homage!
Joan – I am not…
Physician – It’s the last time.
Joan – Yes, the last time. (The doctor helps her to her mantle and tiara. Joan sets off, then comes back, embraces him, then exits)
A strong, sharp beam of light illuminates the Physician, now alone on the stage.
Physician – In the year 850, during a procession, the Popess Joan, overcome by birth-pangs, gave birth to an infant. The Roman people, infuriated by the scandal, killed her and her child.
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