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A One-Act Play Based on Franz Kafka’s A Hunger Artist









Scene I:

Behind the tent of a large circus, the year is 1925, and a static radio whispers the blues in the background. It is sundown and empty cages scatter the stage, their dark silhouettes visible against the sky. Empty popcorn bags and half eaten cotton candy sticks litter the straw covered ground. Every so often, the laugh or scream of a child is audible. As the radio drones on, the lights focus on one cage. It appears empty at first, but then the thin frame of an emaciated man becomes clear as he shifts his sitting position. Above the cage, there is a board. Numbers, starting from one and climbing to forty, have been crossed off in stark, white paint. It is the thirty-eighth day.

Sweeping can be heard as a young boy comes on stage, using a broom to brush the straw and garbage. He works diligently as he crosses the stage, until he comes across the Hunger Artist’s cage. He wanders up to the enclosure and peers inside. Voices approaching can be heard, the boy turns towards the advancing group of people and watches them as they enter.



Mr. Meavley (a rather robust, loud, greasy, and round man)
I don’t like it at all. I cannot imagine... (he sees the boy) Oh, Billy I didn’t see you there. You’ve done enough today, thanks.
The boy looks expectantly at him.
Oh, and here. Buy yourself some candy, you deserve it.
The boy smiles and runs off with the money and the broom.
As I was saying.... lord, what on earth was I saying?

Sally (a young woman, dressed in dance attire, admiring herself in a hand mirror)
It doesn’t matter in the slightest, Mr. Meavley. Atlanta loves us, for now, and we just can’t pick up and leave when business is good. It doesn’t make sense.

Mr. Meavley
Have you seen the papers? New York is the newest...

Sally
I don’t care! We can’t just pick up and leave when business is good, no matter what goes on in New York. We’re here now, so can’t you just stop sweating and enjoy what you’ve got?
(She sits on a wooden box near a cage, pulls out a cigarette and turns towards Mr. Meavley, who is leaning up against an empty cage)
Light?
(he lights her cigarette)

Mr. Meavley
(pauses for a minute)
I’ll make a deal with you.

Sally
(sighs) Alright.

Mr. Meavley
If you can fill the stands for the routine when the Hunger Artist leaves his cage-and I mean filled- we won’t leave. You’ve got one seat empty and we’re outta here. You got it?
(Sally looks across the stage at the cage with the emaciated man barely visible. She sighs again, looks at Mr. Meavley)

Sally
How about we make the same deal but for my routine with the lion? I’ll have the seats filled! You won’t even...

Mr. Meavley
I said for the Hunger Artist-do we have a deal?

Sally
I suppose, but really Theodore, this is truly unfair.

Mr. Meavley
I’m not fair, darlin, I only run one. (he laughs a syrupy laugh and stops abruptly)
I’ve got a business to run. Get some sleep, early morning show tomorrow.
(He crosses to her and awkwardly pats her shoulder, he exits)
(She takes a long drag on her cigarette and throws it on the floor. She crosses to the cage where the Hunger Artist fasts, she looks inside and talks, more to herself)

Sally
You best be coming out of that cage, now. We’re gunna get packing pretty soon here. No way in hell am I filling that stadium.
(She pauses and looks around her self-consciously)
This is one creepy act you’ve got going. I can’t even stand it for a minute.
(she steps away from the cage, almost frightened, and exits).

Hunger Artist
(singing with more of a raspy whisper, the radio barely audible in the background)
“They ain’t gunna send me to no L’ectric chair...I say they ain’t gunna send...”

End Scene I: Scene II

The setting has moved into night. Now, light illuminates the scene in a haze, with no moon. It is eerily quiet, and there is a slightly brighter focus of light on a table stage right, with two men playing cards next to a flickering lamp. They hunch over a small wooden box, and every so often one will grunt with success, or slam their hand down in failure. After awhile, the monotonous game of cards comes to an end, and one of the men wanders over to a cage.

Watcher I
Here, kitty kitty, here. C’mon get up you lazy animal!
(no noise in response)
Stupid cat.
(he hacks, and spits)
Hey, George, you got any food? I’m starving.

Watcher II
Nah, sorry. Cindy wouldn’t let me bring any. She says I’m gettin’ fat from these late nights.




Watcher I
Hah. When you’re fat I’ll be the first to let ya know. (he sticks his hand in the next cage, trying to get a response from the sleeping lion, his attempts fail.)
How is Cindy? Last time I saw her you guys weren’t even engaged.

Watcher II
She’s alright, I suppose.
(Watcher I has made his way around the stage, looking into the different cages)

Watcher I
Hey, I forgot they had this guy in here! George, get over here!
(George, Watcher II, gets up with difficulty and makes his way across the stage)

Watcher II
I thought we were just supposed to be watching the cats.

Watcher I
Guess not. (he pauses as he inspects the emaciated frame of a man)
What a phony! Think he snuck some food while we were playing?

Watcher II
(he pauses) I...well, I don’t think so. He is called a Hunger Artist. Isn’t the whole point that they don’t eat?

Watcher I
Ha, how does Cindy put up with you? Of course he’s not supposed to eat, but what kind of man can go, what, thirty eight days without eating? I mean, that’s just not normal.

Watcher II
But that’s the point, right? People like him because what he does isn’t normal?

Watcher I
Heck, nobody likes him. They just are forced to see him on their way to the cats. I’m sure he’s got some sort of food in there.
(they both peer into the cage, a cat in a distant cell groans)
He gives me the creeps. Play a game of Poker with me?



Watcher II
How ‘bout Spits. I’m sick of Poker.

Watcher I
Alright, but you’re counting off first.
(They cross the stage away from the cage. They begin playing again).

End Scene II: Scene III

It is midday, and the stage has not changed very much at all. The cages are filled with wild animals, with the exception of the Hunger Artist’s enclosure. The previously littered floor is less cluttered than before. Music, playing in the near distance can be heard, and often the burst of applause or the quick intake of breath from shock gets carried over to the cages by the lightly blowing wind. The Hunger Artist lays seemingly asleep, the only part of him visible is his small arm dangling between two bars of the cage, swaying with each new gust of laughter-filled wind. The blue of the sky contrasts the black of his cage and the stark white paint that hasn’t changed and rests as the thirty-eighth day. The chipped paint and immutable numbers seem to suggest that a great deal of time has passed since someone took the time to cross off another number. The table where the watchers spent their late night has been cleared away and a woman now sits, perched on a stool much too small, drawing on a notebook in her lap. She sits behind a cart with popcorn and cotton candy containers attached at every possible angle. She is wearing heavy makeup that matches her bright cloche hat. Her dark curled hair peeps out, and frames her round face. She crosses her legs, somewhat daintily, as she pulls at the neck of her summer sports suit.

Nellie
Woohee, it’s hot today! I thought the summer swells were over, gosh was I wrong!

She talks to herself, humming every so often. Her canvas is covered in simple handed drawings without much connection. She takes off her hat and fans her face, which now is covered in melting powder. As the vague, upbeat, marching band music comes to a vibrant end, applause breaks out and the murmurings of a crowd begin to grow in volume. She puts down her canvas and stands up to lean against the stool. She wipes her face as clusters of people, families with young kids mostly, come around from the tent and walk towards the cages.



Nellie
Hey folks! I’m sure you had a mighty time in there! Did you like the lion? What a swell routine. You must be thirsty in this heat. Well, I’ve got lemonade, what goes better with lemonade then popcorn, or cotton candy. Hey, kids! Want some popcorn?

Kids pull on their parents’ hands, drawn to the offer posed by the woman dwarfed by the mountains of sugar. Some parents will grudgingly allow themselves to be pulled over to the cart, where the kids buy as much sugar as possible and grow more hyper with each bite. Other adults will stop and scold their children, and then distract them again with the huge cats in the cages.

Nellie
Lemonade, popcorn, cotton candy!

Several trouble making kids wander over to the cats’ cages where they throw popcorn at the beasts resting in the shade. One lioness gets up angrily and swipes at the open air behind the bars. She paces angrily as she is bombarded by cotton candy sticks and popcorn.

Nellie
Kids, kids! Stop that! I mean it!

As they continue their relentless pursuit of agitating the cats, Nellie is forced to walk over and reprimand them herself. As she has a conversation with the trouble-makers’ parents, the late comers from the show wander out from behind the tent. One father stops with his son as his wife and daughter meander towards the cats.

Father
(nostalgically) Look, son. Here’s a Hunger Artist. When I was a little older that you, we used to see these all over the place.

Son
He looks sick, daddy. He’s so pale he’s purple!

Father
He is, isn’t he. He hasn’t eaten for, well look, almost forty days now. Come here, feel his arm.

(The father urges his son forward to feel the thin arm of the motionless man)

Son
I don’t want to! I want to see the cats instead!
(his eyes begin to water, and his face crumples)

Father
Don’t cry, honey. You don’t have to. How about we go get some popcorn? Will that make you feel any better?
(The son nods his head solemnly and he and his father leave the cage and make their way over to the candy stand.)
(Sally enters from behind the stage with a clown. They are arm and arm, nodding at the admiring little girls looking at Sally, and the boys begging the clown for a balloon animal.)

Sally
(to the clown) I suppose that was a good show.

Clown
Yeah (he chews tobacco slowly, and spits every so often)

Sally
Well, I’m going to to freshen up. This heat is killing me. See you around?

Clown
Yeah.
Sally unhooks her arm from the Clown’s and weaves her way through the crowd. She comes across kids in the crowd and she pats their heads affectionately and she finally comes across the cage of the sleeping Hunger Artist. She looks at the board above his cage and pauses.

Sally
Wasn’t it just?...no it couldn’t have been. Jesus, this heat.
She laughs uncertainly to herself and reaches to touch the dangling arm of the Hunger Artist.
Before she can, she turns quickly at the sound of a child shrieking in delight at an awakening lion. She wipes her quivering brow and retreats away from the cage and exits.

End Scene III: Scene IV

It is early morning and the stage is silent. There is a light mist hovering close to the straw that covers the floor. The slamming of a door can be heard offstage and Sally walks onstage briskly. She is wrapped in a thick shawl, in her night clothes, with her hair pinned in curlers. She crosses the stage and exits again, with purpose and direct focus. The sound of radio static can be heard from offstage, then tuning, and then the quiet noise of blues fighting to emerge between bars of white noise. Sally wanders back on stage with the radio and sets it down in the straw. She hums and sways with the music and begins to notice her surroundings. She looks at the lioness and lions. She grabs a bucket beside their cage and she begins to throw the juicy red meat in their face as they awaken to the smell of blood. She laughs as they toss the meat around, as their faces drip with blood, as they lick their paws ravenously. She makes her way around the cages, feeding the cats, until she comes across the last cage. She turns towards the Hunger Artist’s enclosure, and notices his arm dangling from the side, the exact position it lay in before. Her head slowly and hesitantly turns upwards, and her eyes focus on the board, with the white paint still stuck on day thirty eight.

Sally
(gasp) Oh. (She drops the bucket and runs off stage).

The cats lick their paws and settle back down to sleep before day is totally upon them. After a brief pause, Mr. Meavley wanders on stage, looking very disheveled. It takes him a moment to figure out which cage he is looking for. He grabs the bruised arm of the Hunger Artist roughly.)

Mr. Meavley (to Sally who followed him on,without emotion)
How long did he fast?

Sally(focused on her bare feet)
I don’t know.

Mr. Meavley
So no one kept an eye to see how long?

Sally
I don’t think so.

Mr. Meavley
(with a grunt) No profit, no record, no use. I’ll deal with it. Now you go pack for New York.

Sally
Alright. (She exits without looking back, her cheeks red)

Mr. Meavley
No profit, no record, no use. I hear they got leopards in New York. I’m gunna get me a white one.
(He moves slowly and awkwardly around the cage and opens the door, scowls, and exits brushing his hands on his legs.)

After the lights brighten, Billy, the young boy, wanders on stage with a shovel. He looks inside the enclosure, climbs on a box and removes the board with the paint, sets it down, and crosses behind the cage where he begins digging. He returns to grab the thin frame of the man, by the purple arms. He throws him over his shoulder, and walks gracefully as the frame is easy for him to hold. He goes behind the cage, presumably to put the Hunger Artist in the ground. When he returns, he breaks the board over his knee and throws the pieces aside. He then closes the door to the cage and looks longingly inside.

Billy
Wow. A real live white leopard. Now that’s something.





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