The Cameraman

In a few weeks, it will be exactly four years since I went out for my Monday afternoon tempo run and returned home with a one-act play stuck in my head. To dislodge it, I wrote it down. In light of last night’s U.S. presidential debate,

I thought this would be a good opportunity to share it and, possibly, not have to think about it again.

THE CAMERAMAN

(A one-act play)

Setting:  A windowless, nearly empty room. A table and two chairs. A pair of coffee mugs and a manila envelope on the table. A door is set into the back wall, along with a large clock. The hands never move throughout the action.

At rise: Two men are present. The first man, standing, wears a cheap, ill-fitting suit. His intended manner is courteous, even officious, even if he doesn’t always quite bring it off.

This was taken in Prague, in the House of the Black Madonna, the city’s first Cubist building, which also houses the elegant Grand Café Orient. There are certain writers, Kafka comes to mind, Borges is another, who can only be read in short bursts. The experience of reading them is like staring at the sun.

FIRST MAN

What you’re saying, then… You believe it to be true.

SECOND MAN

Yes, I do. For God’s sake, why else would I say it?

FIRST MAN

But what makes it true? The fact that you said it? That alone…?

SECOND MAN

No, of course not. But you saw…you were there.

FIRST MAN

I saw nothing because I was not there.

Besides, all we have to go by are your statements.

SECOND MAN

But I saw you. You were there. I saw, with my own eyes.

(Pause)

What do you mean, ‘we’?

FIRST MAN

I wouldn’t read too much into it, my friend. By ‘we,’ all I mean is you and me.

We…in this room. Look around. Who else is there?

SECOND MAN

Don’t know what I meant, actually. It’s just…

FIRST MAN

Well…?

SECOND MAN

Things are so unsettled now… You know…?

FIRST MAN

I do. Perfectly. At the same time, though…

SECOND MAN

Yes?

FIRST MAN

I also feel that things are actually quite settled.

More settled than they have been in years. And this alone gives me a sense of satisfaction. There’s nothing like satisfaction to make a man of you.

SECOND MAN

How can you say that? Look around…

FIRST MAN

You look around.

SECOND MAN

(Pause)

I’m not sure I like your tone.

FIRST MAN

Well, get over it. You’ll be hearing a lot more of that tone now, believe you me.

(Pause)

Sorry. I’m sounding a bit strident.

SECOND MAN

But I did see you.

FIRST MAN

Oh, no! Back to that, are we?

SECOND MAN

No, listen, listen. Hear me out.

I not only saw you, you saw me. You acknowledged me. You have no memory of it?

FIRST MAN

Ha! Memory. Memory is highly over-rated, don’t you think?

SECOND MAN

What’s more, I can prove you were there.

FIRST MAN

Oh, proof. Now we have proof!

SECOND MAN

Yes, witnesses. I have an entire crowd of witnesses.

FIRST MAN

Well, we know all about your witnesses, and about your crowds…

SECOND MAN

There’s that ‘we’ again…

FIRST MAN

My associates and I have been in touch with your so-called witnesses, you’ll be surprised to know, and there’s nothing to what they say. Absolutely nothing.

All of which leaves your testimony rather threadbare.

SECOND MAN

Since when did all this become testimony?

FIRST MAN

Since the moment I saw you walk into this room. Since the moment you…

SECOND MAN

But I didn’t “walk in,” as you describe it. I was already here and you walked in.

I was minding my own business, standing here, in this room, at this table, and the next thing I knew…

FIRST MAN

Silence!

SECOND MAN

Well…now you are scaring me.

FIRST MAN

Sorry about that. Didn’t mean to scare you.

(Long pause)

Shall we tell some jokes?

SECOND MAN

At a time like this… I’m not sure…

FIRST MAN

You know, to lighten the mood.

Nothing better than a good joke for lightening the mood. I’ll start.

An old man on his deathbed. (Stop me if you’ve heard it.) An old man on his deathbed. He calls his three sons to him.

A simple son, a crafty son, and a kind-hearted son.

SECOND MAN

Oh, God!

FIRST MAN

What now?

SECOND MAN

Such clichés!

FIRST MAN

Just bear with me… So, where were we?

Oh, yes! Three nuns are at mass, or wherever nuns go to these days. Anyway, they leave together to minister to a hospital ward of sick children, or whatever it is they do with their time these days. But since they’re late, they take a shortcut through an alley.

At which point, a Muslim, a Jew and a Hindu jump out, throw the nuns to the ground and begin raping them.

The first nun raises her eyes to heaven and says, “Forgive him, Lord. He knows not what he does!”

The second nun raises her eyes to heaven and says, “Forgive him, Lord. He knows not what he does.”

And…

(Overcome with laughter.)

SECOND MAN

But that isn’t even funny. It’s grotesque and cruel.

FIRST MAN

Yes, because we haven’t come to the punch line. You must always wait for it, my friend. It’s the very essence of comedy!

So the third nun raises her eyes to the heavens and says, “Thank you, Lord! He definitely knows what he does!”

(Second man is impassive)

But, okay, let’s try another one. Horse walks into a bar…

SECOND MAN

Why such a long face?

FIRST MAN

Oh, you’ve heard it. Well, so much for my attempts at fellowship.

Some people simply refuse to lighten up, I suppose.

SECOND MAN

Can we just get back to what we were talking about…

The place where you claim to have never been….

FIRST MAN

You are persistent; I’ll give you that…

SECOND MAN

No, bear with me. Just…for argument’s sake, let’s say you were not there. Let’s say everything that happened, happened, except you were not there to witness it.

FIRST MAN

What you say is disputable. But go on.

SECOND MAN

So you were never in the public square, then: the one next to the railway station. You never saw when they brought the old woman into the square. You never saw the stained housecoat she was wearing. Or saw that when they removed the housecoat, all she had on was a thin nightgown.

Apparently they had plucked her from bed. In the middle of the night. It might explain her confusion. Her shivering. It was bitter cold that morning, as I recall. The sun not yet risen.

So you never saw how the old woman’s whiskery chin trembled. Her hipbones jutting through the thin gown. Her crabbed arthritic toes on the asphalt. You saw none of this.

FIRST MAN

Now I’m not sure I like your tone of voice.

SECOND MAN

You never saw the men set her on the ground and then push back the crowd. How the men formed a circle. You never heard the crowd go silent, until the only sound was their panting, from the hard work of living. You never saw their breaths hang in the air, haunting the streetlamps.

FIRST MAN

A touch melodramatic, my friend. You accuse me of clichés, and then…

SECOND MAN

You weren’t there. You didn’t see when they brought in a child, passed it over their heads, like a sack of flour. How the child said nothing. Not a peep, when they placed it on the ground beside the old woman. And still no one spoke, but you could see their breaths rising, rising.

You weren’t there to see the men clear a path through the crowd, make a kind of chute, like at a rodeo, for the performing animals. You weren’t there when, at the end of the chute there appeared a man pulling a wagon. Heavy, of iron, like the luggage wagons in old railway stations. Except on this iron wagon was an iron cage with a dog.

FIRST MAN

And what happened next? I can hardly wait for the punch line.

SECOND MAN

You know very well what happened next. You…

FIRST MAN

Stop! Before you go on, I will introduce my own witness. It’s only fair, after all. You’ve been speaking long enough.

(He walks to a door on stage right and knocks on it once.

A large man immediately appears from the wings on the left.

The first man appears surprised.)

CEDRIC

Sir?

FIRST MAN

Oh, you startled me, Cedric. What are you doing way over there? Well, never mind.

(Addressing the second man.)  

This is Cedric. He is my witness. Cedric, down!

(Cedric goes down on his hands and knees.)

Cedric, speak!

(Cedric barks three times.)    

You see? Cedric says I was nowhere near the square you describe.

SECOND MAN

But you can hardly claim he’s impartial. It’s obvious he’ll do anything you tell him!

FIRST MAN

Oh? Excuse me, isn’t that a bit harsh? To Cedric, I mean. Poor Cedric!

You doubt his integrity? His ability to reason and come to independent conclusions? And who are we — you and me — to doubt Cedric?

Cedric, I’ll have you know, is my commanding officer. The chief executive. Cedric occupies the corner office. Has his own table in the cafeteria. Eats the biggest steak.

When I write my reports, as I do daily, I submit them to Cedric for approval. Isn’t that right, Cedric?

CEDRIC

Daily.

FIRST MAN

So you see, we are at an impasse, my friend. Your word against Cedric’s.

(Pause.)

But where were we? Oh yes, your story.

(He makes air quotes around ‘story.’)

Please continue.

SECOND MAN

I will try.

The man pulling the wagon and the iron cage with the dog had appeared. This must have been a sign, because the lights suddenly came on, with a loud clack. There were bright, merciless spots, mounted on the surrounding buildings.

There was a fanfare, too. Of trumpets.          

And in the bright glare, everyone turned to see platforms at each corner of the square. With a camera mounted on each platform.

I was standing on one of those platforms, behind a camera.

FIRST MAN

Ah! So you’re not just a witness. You’re also an actor in your story. A cameraman, eh! Witness par excellence. So, go on…

SECOND MAN

The man opened the cage and the dog rushed out and the hair stood in a ridge along the dog’s back and the dog snapped its jaws and growled like this.

(He imitates a ferocious dog.)

The growls were so deep we all felt them, a low rumble in our chests.

The dog must have been specially schooled. Because it knew just what to do. The crowd backed away and there was some confusion, and in the confusion, some fell to the ground, but the dog would not be distracted. It ignored the crowd and turned its pale grey eyes on the old woman and the child. The dog bared its teeth and lowered its head nearly to the ground. Its eyes were grey slits.

Suddenly the dog leaped at the huddled figures and the old woman put out her arm to fend off its jaws. We heard her arm snap like a twig. It hung uselessly by her side. The old woman gasped, too frightened to scream. Her nightgown already soaked in blood.

With the dog’s first leap, the old woman had instinctively stepped in front of the child to protect it. But then the dog began tearing at the old woman, and as she began to experience the first real wave of pain, she pulled the child in front of her. Pulled the child with her good arm, tempted the dog with the child, desperate to be spared.

Up to this point, the crowd had been watching with a sick fear. With fascination and pity. But at this turn of events, they began to jeer at the old woman, “Shame, shame! Shame on you!”

Their jeers didn’t last long. Like I said, the dog was schooled. It knew just what to do. The ground was soon covered in blood, and in the middle lay the old woman and the child, in a heap.

Tail wagging, the dog attempted to lap at the blood. But the master whistled and the dog bolted back into its cage and the master shut the cage and wheeled the wagon away.

(Pause.)

FIRST MAN

Quite the story, my friend. I am sure it will haunt my dreams.

(He yawns.)

SECOND MAN

It has haunted my own dreams ever since.

FIRST MAN

(Amused.)

Quite so. You say you have witnesses who will testify I was there. Yours truly, in the flesh and in the pink of health…there. Truly there. At the scene.

SECOND MAN

Yes, all those frightened, jeering people are witnesses. I took names. Also, I have photographic proof. There is no mistaking it. You were the man pulling the wagon. You were the dog’s master.

FIRST MAN

Ah, the punch line at last.

(Pause.)                   

People saw me, you say. Not only that; they are ready to testify to that effect.

SECOND MAN

Yes.

FIRST MAN

Willing to say I was there, and a full participant in that morning’s events.

SECOND MAN

They’ve said so…

FIRST MAN

But I ask you, where are those witnesses? Please…I invite you call them.

(Pause.)                   

I don’t see anyone. Cedric, do you see anyone else in this room?

CEDRIC

No one, sir.

FIRST MAN

Exactly.

SECOND MAN

This is so depressing…

FIRST MAN

Any other evidence? Oh, you say you were behind the camera, on a platform. And so you have photographic evidence. A picture is worth a thousand words.

SECOND MAN

More clichés. But yes, I have these. Stills from my film…

(He picks up a large manila envelope from the table and takes out some pictures. The first man takes the photos carelessly, glances at them and tosses them back on the table.)

FIRST MAN

That’s it? That’s the best you can do? These pictures, my friend, are portraits of your failure…of your impotence. Even, if you don’t mind me saying so, of your weakness.

You saw a man who you say looks very much like me. You took video, photos. You took the trouble of printing the photos — an old-fashioned touch, and normally this would endear me to you. But everyone knows photos can be faked. So what’s the next step in your investigation, my dear Sherlock?

SECOND MAN

Eye-witnesses…

FIRST MAN

Ah, memories again. I invite you to place us side by side. Put us on a platform, under bright lights. Me and the man you say was there. The man in the square, pulling the wagon. And let your eye-witnesses examine us.

You claim we are the same man. True, as far as it goes.

He and I may, to all outward appearances, live in the same house. Say, a brick bungalow surrounded by hydrangeas, on a quiet crescent. He and I may sleep with the same woman, by the name of Doris, of Hungarian extraction. He and I may play with the same two adorable children, a boy and a girl, Boris and Betty.

Cedric! To all outward appearances, do these details correspond?

CEDRIC

Sir, you live in a brick bungalow surrounded by hydrangeas. The house is on a quiet crescent. You are married to a woman named Doris, of Hungarian extraction. Your two children, a boy and a girl, are named Boris and Betty, respectively.

FIRST MAN

So, yes, the outward appearances correspond! But he is not me. I am not him.

How in God’s name can you not see that?

SECOND MAN

But what you say makes no sense. You’ve even made my case. This man and you are the same. The outward appearances you’ve itemized…

FIRST MAN

Coincidence. Circumstantial detail. Utter confusion!

And now I come to my point: Please state your name.

(The second man is silent.)    

I said: What. Is. Your. Name.

(Long silence.)

Well?

SECOND MAN

Cedric.

FIRST MAN

I am sorry, I didn’t quite get that.

SECOND MAN

Cedric. Cedric, Cedric, Cedric!

FIRST MAN

Thank you, Cedric.

Now, shall I have Cedric take you to your quarters?

It’s getting dark. It will soon be too dark to see, whether witnesses are there to observe it or not.

SECOND MAN

But I thought these were my quarters.

FIRST MAN

Actually, we have set aside more appropriate lodgings. With…amenities.

SECOND MAN

You’re scaring me again.

FIRST MAN

Are you afraid of the dark, Cedric?

SECOND MAN

Sometimes…yes.

FIRST MAN

Well, then, my Cedric will tell you a bedtime story.

SECOND MAN

You’re scaring me.

FIRST MAN

In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, fear has no basis. Remember that. Fear resides entirely here.

(Taps his head.)

SECOND MAN

Do you think so? I would like to believe so. But this might be the one case out of a hundred.

FIRST MAN

Hmmm…It might be. Then again, it might not. There is no way of knowing, my friend.

Or, rather, in these circumstances there is no clear advantage in knowing. This is what I’m trying to explain about your witnesses.

They will only spread fear. Which in itself is highly contagious and almost impossible to treat.

SECOND MAN

What will we do now?

FIRST MAN

Are you bored? Would you like Cedric to amuse you? Cedric, amuse our guest.

(Cedric strides over and slaps the second man across the face.

He retreats to the back wall again.)

When it comes to amusing things to do or say, Cedric’s repertoire is limited.

What happened now? Cat got your tongue?

SECOND MAN

(Sobs.)

FIRST MAN

Oh, that’s so sad. You probably think me heartless. But I’m all heart, my friend.

Everything I do, I do out of love. That’s me: a bottomless well of compassion. Of feeling.  Like you, I weep for the world. I weep for myself. For what history compels me to do.

Here, wipe those tears. Turn that smile upside down! You are lucky, my friend. Others would kill for your luck.

Tell me again, what did you see?

(Pause.)                   

SECOND MAN

I don’t know.

FIRST MAN

Ah, yes. Much better! Let’s chalk it up to progress. Not knowing, I mean. This is our human lot, is it not? Doubt. Ignorance. The dark.

We are born straining toward a veiled light and every day the light recedes further and further away.

SECOND MAN

Only the blind can see.

FIRST MAN

What was that? What did you say?

SECOND MAN

I said only the blind can see.

FIRST MAN

We’ll have to study that proposition carefully.

You accuse me of cliches, and here you go with your very own.

Now, time to call it a day.

Cedric, please turn out the lights.

                                                                                                (Cedric closes his eyes.)

Also in Prague, behind a bar, a man demonstrates how to eat a sausage.

20 thoughts on “The Cameraman”

  1. This is fantastic top to bottom, horrors disappeared by lies that disorient and derange, overlay by a suffocating shroud of refinement. We don’t even need to know the reason behind the horrors. Is there ever a reason that matters anyway? I’ll be revealing my ignorance here: Beckettesque but darker? Love the closing photo, like humans eating their own shit. Too graphic for this space? Would travel to see it staged. You can tell this triggers my anger!

    Like

  2. Bone – chilling reality.
    Thank you for your mind on the page .
    Love reading you my friend, no matter how unsettling, or possibly because of how unsettling.

    Like

  3. This is great, Spyro. You are an amazing writer. In terms of last night’s debate, CNN’s comment nailed it—“A hot mess in a dumpster fire on a train wreck.” Perhaps it’s time for me to move back to my birth country!

    Like

  4. Hi Spyro – the fever dream quality here reminds me of the bleak staging of certain plays I’ve seen over the years. I’m getting the chills and the photo at the end brings a note of menace. As I said to someone in March about our situation as a population – It always happens gradually and you don’t know it until it is too late. The frog in the pot that slowly heats to boiling.

    Stay well.

    Like

  5. Quite chilling and attractive at the same time … like heading for a wall at high speed anticipating what will happen… too curious to experience it, in another sort of zone to stop. Moths to fire! Exquisite! Reminds me of Beckett. Thank you very much for this Spyro. So entertaining and insightful… One question if I may – Are we sure the illustrated man is eating a sausage? I like to think he is in fact pulling his guts out. Stay sane. Stay safe friend. Let’s try to catch up soon.

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    1. Thank you, Karim. Glad you “enjoyed” it, and I can see you entered into the spirit of the thing by viewing the sausages in a strikingly different way. Yes, we will catch up soon, I hope.

      Like

  6. Seems to me there is a tie-in between these undesirables and your closing image: missing links. Now I understand why you wouldn’t entertain listening to podcasts on your runs: too passive. Lucky for us. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

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