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This Machine Called Man
Setting: It is the year 1832 in the county of Lancashire, England. The scene opens in Cotton Textile Factory #26, where children are lined along the machinery and busy at work. Many are operating the cotton looms, while others are occupied with weaving and spinning. The screeching sound of running machinery is apparent. All the children are dressed in tattered garments, and their faces are blackened with grime from the machines.
MATTHEW is eleven years old, a scrawny boy with wispy brown hair. LILLY is nine, a petite girl with blue eyes and straight blonde hair. MR. HARRIS is the manager of the factory, a sturdy man in his forties with a rather rotund face.
(LILLY stumbles in from STAGE RIGHT, followed by MR. HARRIS. There are tears running down her cheeks, and MR. HARRIS has an irritated scowl on his face.)
MR. HARRIS: (angry tone, pointing to Matthew) Over there! Go to the boy! He’ll tell you what to do. You’re unbelievably worthless, you know. (muttering to himself) It’s a shame I hire these dimwitted lasses.
(LILLY staggers over to MATTHEW, who is tending to the spinning machine. MR. HARRIS exits)
MATTHEW: (not looking up from his work) First day?
LILLY: (rather ashamedly, choking on tears) Yes.
MATTHEW: (sympathetically) Well, don’t make a fuss about it. I been working here for three years, and trust me, it gets easier. You get used to it. Mister Harris’s got quite a temper, but if you work well, he won’t bother ya. (looking up at her) Matthew Henry, by the way. Pleasure.
LILLY: Lilly Walter.
MATTHEW: (still working) Aha. So Lilly. You’re going to need to listen real carefully. You see when the thread comes around like this? It’ll spin twice every time, and that’s your cue. (demonstrating) Pull the lever up, and then push it down, but be mindful not to knock the copper switch on the right. Go on, give it a whirl…
(LILLY does as she is told, but hesitantly)
MATTHEW: Yes, that’s it. You’ve got it. A little faster, now.
(MATTHEW, satisfied with her progress, resumes his own work. The two work side by side.
(There is a pause. They are always working while chatting.)
LILLY: (regaining composure) Matthew?
LILLY: Why have you been working here so long?
MATTHEW: (shyly) I don’t really like to talk about it. (pauses) And you? What brings you here?
LILLY: Mother sent me. She told me to work hard because I’m her only hope. Ever since Daddy left, the money’s been low. And she has to look after the baby too.
MATTHEW: (nodding) Ah.
LILLY: (long pause) But lately, she’s been all frightened… like she’s keeping something from me. I’m not quite sure what to make out of it, but I think it was what Daddy said. (stops, as if in deep thought)
MATTHEW: (inquisitively) And what might that be?
LILLY: Well, he was very sore at her, and they were quarreling; only it was much worse than ever before. I had to cover my ears, but I heard what he said last to her, before he was gone. (pauses again, then recites) “They’ll find out what you did, Margaret, but I won’t be there to help you this time.”
MATTHEW: (long pause) That’s very queer… I’m dreadfully sorry. Honest.
LILLY: Oh, never mind that. (quickly changing the subject) You know, I used to go to school. St. Augustine’s, just two miles from here. We learned grammar and all the like… I suppose you’ve gone to school also?
MATTHEW: No, never been. But I’m going to be a captain one day. (Voice rises in excitement) Captain of a ship. I’ll know the sea better than anyone, because I’ll be an explorer! A famous one, too!
LILLY: (dreamily) That sounds just grand! I’ve always wondered what it’d be like to sail on a real ship.
MATTHEW: (examining her face closely, furrowing his eyebrows) Its odd, Lilly, but you remind me of my sister.
LILLY: Is that so? I’d love to meet her. She must be here!
MATTHEW: (shaking his head) No, she… never made it through. (a troubled expression crosses his face) Really, it was only a foolish mistake. But Mister Harris did it anyways--
LILLY: (interjecting) Did what? What did he do?
(Abruptly, LILLY’S arm slips and hits the copper switch to the right of the lever. There is a sudden silence as every machine in the factory slows to a complete stop. The thread spools, fabrics, and assorted textiles tumble out of the machinery, and grey smoke swirls in the air. All the children whisper in hushed voices, peering fearfully at each other)
MATTHEW: (panicking) Bloody hell, Lilly! What have you done?! He’s coming now, he knows we’ve stopped; you’ve no way around it!
LILLY: (whimpering) Oh, it was only by accident, I--
(MR. HARRIS enters, outraged)
MR. HARRIS: (shaking his head furiously) You bloody scoundrels! Good-for-nothing rats! I’d like to know which one of you twits decided to play this one on me! Go on, show yourself. Or you’ll all get a lashing!
(The children, stunned, do not speak or move. LILLY’S eyes begin to swell, and she breathes harder, pursing her lips. There is a lingering silence.)
MR. HARRIS: No one? (flailing arms savagely) You lying fools! I’ll take all your heads off!
(LILLY is on the verge of sobbing. Suddenly, MATTHEW steps forward)
MATTHEW: (placidly, head down) It was me, sir.
(All the children gasp, clearly shocked)
MR. HARRIS: (in a malicious tone) We have a taker, I see. Very well then.
(MR. HARRIS storms over to MATTHEW, grabs him by the hair, and drags him to a large cistern of steaming water. Holding one hand on MATTHEW’S neck, he forces his head into the water. With the other hand, he whips MATTHEW’S back with a brass rod. Muffled screams are heard. Curtain closes.)
(Curtain opens. The machinery is running again, and children are back to work. MATTHEW’S body is a heap on the floor. LILLY is standing over him.)
LILLY: (frightfully) Matthew?