where the grapes of wrath are stored

[Another visit to the novel in progress. A Republic of Books

My play about Benjamin Lay begins with a monologue, as he picks the grapes at the arbor just outside his door—well, not exactly. It is a dialogue, but between Benjamin and his wife, Sarah, who has been dead now for nearly sixteen years. The silent answers are clear only in his responses. The face of his home in the cave beneath a low bluff is visible to stage right. There is a short, extended, wood shingled roof from the upper ledge and this is clearly mossy; above and behind is the rise of a bluff, sylvan with small trees and broken in part by sunlight and wild flowers. The rough hewn wall behind is boarded with vertical planking trimmed at top and bottom and gray with weather, and this is divided by a wide door, as well as several windows. Glazed pots are arranged beneath the eaves along with potted flowers.  

At first Ben is alone at the stage front, and the conversation is about the small matters of daily living mixed with news of the French and Indian War, which has continued. The previous October there had been a massacre at Penn’s Creek, and he has only recently learned that a friend died there with the others, but more immediately there is word still fresh of General Braddock’s defeat at the Monongahela River while attempting to capture the French Fort Duquesne. Lay despairs over the loss of life, as well as his difficulties at handling household chores by himself, interspersing his complaints with a chiding of Sarah over her unhelpfulness in not being there. He recalls that she had loved to pick the grapes herself, often eating more than she brought to the table, and he breathes deeply of the ripening odors for her.

At a point in this conversation, a figure comes into view at the back of the stage. It is recognizably the still vigorous Ben Franklin of the 1750’s. Franklin stops when he hears Lay’s voice and watches for time, long enough to hear the poignant exchange between Lay and his wife about the grapes before coming forward to interrupt the clearly private banter. Lay does not act at all embarrassed. Franklin’s arrival is accepted, as if expected.

Franklin: How are you old friend?

Lay: Better than I deserve.

Franklin: Do I interrupt. Is there someone else?

Lay: Only Sarah and myself.

Franklin: But Sarah has been dead these many years. I stood at her grave.

Lay: I am made aware of it each dawn! But that was only her body, sir. Her soul is still with me.

Franklin: Yes—Of course. My apology.

Lay: (looking back in the direction of the road) And where is your animal? We must see to his thirst and provender.

Franklin: I walked sir. In your honor. At least ten mile.

Lay: Then, it is you I must provide for. Have a grape!

Franklin: Many thanks. You have always had the best. I even made wine of the lot you gave me last year in trade for printing the pamphlet. Excellent wine.

Lay: I’m sure that even in heaven my Sarah regrets not having her grapes. I try to enjoy them for her. I still keep her wine pots there by the roof to catch the rain. They are as musical as glass. But you know I’ve never ceased to talk with her. And she has become a far better listener since she has gone, and not so ready to correct me!

 

In the second act they are inside at the table, eating fresh fruits and talking about slavery and war. Behind them is a wall of books. There is an iron stove and hearth at stage right. The entrance door is at the front left. Light from the windows enters from stage front.

The two men are seated facing the audience and obviously in the midst of their meal, with various vegetables and fruits on the table before them.

 

Lay: But what of your own slaves, sir? Did you sell them?

Franklin: Yes—you mean the fellow and his wife that I bought for Deborah to help with her tasks. I told you once before and you have already damned me for that. And now Debby wishes me to do so again with Peter. She fears that we will die in a state of mortal sin. Your preaching has always reached her—even those many years ago when I published your book. But, Peter, is indispensable. He says that he is content in his place, and I rely upon him.

Lay: He is afraid that you will sell him too. I suppose he believes you to be a good master. It is always the fear of the slave that his next master will be worse. But now, give him manumission! Free your own soul at last and ask forgiveness of the Lord!

Franklin: I pay him wages.

Lay: The wages of your own sin. I cringe at the thought of what you did before with that couple. My preaching was proved half-worthy when you sold them after all!

Franklin: I did not profit from that, though I feel the regret. They were good people. But they needed a place where they would be welcomed together. I couldn’t cast them into the storm.

Lay: Your excuse rings false!

Franklin: It does. True. But Deborah did not want them in the house while I was away to England at the time. Better, I suppose, that they be cast off to the shambles by the quay and die there of the ague.

Lay: How can I argue when you make such tinplate argument. You make my task impossible! Listen! The Lord says to you ‘Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye did it not unto me.’

Franklin: I feel the truth of that. My excuse does have the ring of tin.

Lay: And your Gazette continues to run advertisements for human flesh and bulletins for runaways. ‘To be sold, a likely lusty Negro man,’ was said. I’ll never forget! Aren’t you still ashamed?

Franklin: You know that I’ve long since given the business chores of the press over to Mr. Hall, so that I can pursue other matters. He is bound to take such advertisements for common trade, lest we loose the business to another paper.

Lay: The truth is your neglect! Is that your excuse then? Shame! [shaking his head in exasperation] You know I had an Irish lad here for a week in hiding who had your paper in his coat with a notice of his own escape from a High Street master. His skin was whiter than yours yet he was indentured as thoroughly as any black man.

Franklin: It is the state of our world. It will better, in time, I think. I hope. And though it’s true that I tend to live with the present as it is, I have endeavored to improve the prospects before me. It’s your own courage, perhaps, that I lack to face it headlong, and likely the very reason I’m here today. Business is simple by the numbers. Science is a joy, for the seeking. But your answers require more than wit or humor. I know. You are my Monk—my priest and confessor [Franklin rises and turns to the wall of books] I set out this morning only wanting to escape my thoughts—Ah! I see you have a copy of Pamela here. Does a God-fearing man such as yourself not worry to be seen with such lewdness?

Lay: It was discarded on a rubbish heap. Likely by one of your enraged subscribers. I wanted to know why anyone would throw away a book. Now, I want to know why anyone would print it!

Franklin: I am as proud of that as anything I have published. Licentiousness and hypocrisy are skewered! Did you enjoy it?

Lay: It pretends that virtue is rewarded. Is marriage a just reward for lust, then?

Franklin: In my own experience, that is often the case. (He puts the book back on the shelf and turns to his host) But that is not exactly the matter at hand. Deborah will not travel over the sea. She has refused before and now I’ve been asked to go to England once more to represent the Assembly and citizens of Pennsylvania against the Proprietors, and this likely for a longer time. Even though I’ll take my grandson with me for the education, she will not go.

Lay: I have met your wife many times in these years. She is a better woman than you deserve. Yet you have abandoned her before.

Franklin: Far better. And though I deserve nothing but want more.

Lay: You have said that wealth does not interest you. What is it you seek then?

Franklin: Appreciation perhaps. I get little enough of that here. Deborah won’t stay awake in the night to talk with me about light and heat, or cold, much less the weather. She rather goes to bed. Without me. She won’t even play chess with me, though I have taught her the rules and begged her for the company!

Lay: It is the praise, then. You want the praise. Your pride precedes you. I’ve seen the notices of your tricks in the English papers at your Library Company. They flatter you like Market Street whores. Go then. Play there with your kites. Revel in the discovery of some other of God’s wonders as if it were new and not our gift. Go! Abandon your wife again! God will just have the longer list of offenses to consider.

Franklin: What I do is serious. God gave us our brains to use. To question the universe is His gift—while she is content to knit a shawl.

Lay: Like the one she gave me on my last visit? A fine flaxen shawl. That was a holy gift. My Sarah used to knit, you know, but not so fine as your wife. Do you knit?

Franklin: No. But I made a better loom for her. She doesn’t use it.

Lay: You devise. I suppose that is the way you rose yourself from printer’s devil to devil incarnate, and a rich man in the bargain. What wrong can you do to England that is worse than you do here. Either way you pay me no heed and I am a poorer monk for that. In return you bring me only self-pity, of which I have plenty.

Franklin: I have always been a free man in my skull! It’s there I play against that world of material things where I am beholden, obligated and suborned, contracted, agreed upon, sworn to and oathed. Perhaps that’s why I have too little pity. I feel as if I have been indentured again as surely as I was to my brother when I was youth. I escaped then and I must now again. Wealth can be a curse! Yet it is my contention that being poor is no blessing and being ignorant is not so much a shame as being unwilling to learn.

Lay: You can leave your aphorisms there in the garden to fertilize the carrots. You have no humility! So long as you enslave you will be a slave to your wrong!

Franklin: I know it.

Lay: There is no eye in a needle large enough to take a man with human spoils.

Franklin: I have lately been flattered with the praise that I am a man of many parts. Perhaps the Lord will see fit to have me drawn and quartered that I might traverse the eye of His needle by smaller portions.

Lay: Ah! Vanity! Conceit! Pretension! You have no limit to your pride.

Franklin: The Lord made me as I am. Would a merciful God hold a man to account for failings that He himself had fashioned?

Lay: Would a virile God not test us to our limbs. He fashioned the babe, not the man. The man is self-made. Your sins are your own to overcome.

Franklin: My pride is my folly, be certain. But I have felt it from the first inkling. Surely God made my pride as well as my heart and limbs and as surely as he made you, as you are, in order that you might see truth more clearly.

Lay: [dramatically waving off the statement] I have no gift for the truth. I may have some better glimpse of the wrong because I have been wronged. In my moments of despair, Hell has been a familiar to me. But God makes no provision for salvation merely for seeing the truth. Even Moses was not to enter the Promised Land.

Franklin: Then I am damned if I do and damned if I don’t. I would as soon return to England as stay here in sin.

Lay: Will you escape unfettered by your slave?

Franklin: I will take Peter with me. I need his service. But as Polly Baker said of her own habit of laying down with men, ‘ ’tis the Duty of the first and great Command of Nature, and of Nature’s God, to Increase and multiply.’ I am set on my course, by God, I think. There is some destiny to it. But I cannot be all things, though I might do more than most men.

Lay: Hah! Incorrigible! Now I must admit to another fault of my own when contending with you. I am jealous. I have never known such pride in a man. What is like—to think you know what you do not know and not be stunned like an ox by the mystery of it? Is it a paroxysm? Does it feel at all like love? Does it consume you in that way love does from your outer flesh to your inner soul. Or is it only a nut in the throat?

Franklin: Love is not so careless as pride. That foolishness burns hotter and is the more difficult to loose even when you see that you are wrong. When pride fails, it leaves you spiritless.

Lay: At least I have known love.

Franklin: Then you have known the better.

 

The third act ends outside again, after Lay has verbally whipped Franklin for his faults once more and Franklin leaves, seemingly happier and thankful for the scourging. At the last moment Lay turns again to his wife (and the audience) and says, ‘He will charm God, if God has a fault. Now, Sarah, what was it you were saying before that lunatic printer interrupted us?’