Messiah in America: Act 2

Act II 

Scene One

A Golden Calf is brought on stage. A song is sung by an assortment of bourgeois folk.

The sun shines on high and the swallow flies freely
But our wonderful Calf is all that is holy.
We bow to you, our prayers are yours,
Oh Calf, please open Heaven’s doors.

(All bow in dance.)

Gold. Give us Gold. Give us more.
Open up the Golden Door.
Let Golden Rain come down in sheets,
Let Golden Tiles pave our streets.
Oh lovely idol, Idol of Gold,
For you we’ve sold off treasures untold.
Oh you, our God.
Our only God.
Almighty God.

(Bow again.)

Gold! Give us Gold!
Gold Gold Gold.
Yellow Gold.
Lovely round coins, blood-red Gold.
Oh Gold!
Give us Gold.
Oh Idol of Gold, we serve only you.
We bow only to you, we pray only to you.
Oh Gold.
Give us Gold.

(Dancers exit with Calf, which is on wheels.)

Scene Two

The stage is arranged to give an ever-changing impression of being backstage and stage. The characters are shown getting into their costumes. A turn of the stage and it becomes a street in Coney Island. Then we are inside an exhibit hall. Posters and advertisements for the sideshow. Outside, we hear the pounding racket of a band.

Scoundrel Johnnie: (Later Zip.) Where’s the Indian? The Indian! Where is he? Hey! Flossie! This Indian of ours, have you seen him anywhere? We have to open already.

 Flossie: The Indian isn’t coming in today.

 Scoundrel Johnnie: How come?

Flossie: He telephoned. It’s his father’s yortsayt. He’s gotta go to synagogue and say Kaddish.

Scoundrel Johnnie: That’s what you get when you hire landslayt. (Irritated.) Would it have killed me to hire a German or a Pole?  But no, I had to go hire a Jew. A  Jew for an Indian. I’m an idiot.

Flossie: Don’t get angry Mr. Zipkin. He’s no big deal anyway. An Indian? Some freak!  Believe me, Mr. Zipkin, my boyfriend, the Bearded Lady is a bigger attraction than ten Indians.

Scoundrel Johnnie: Your boyfriend! Your boyfriend, the Bearded Lady! All we ever hear is your boyfriend. Everybody’s got something, she’s got a boyfriend, the Bearded Lady. (Ambiguous.) Are you really saving yourself for him, Flossie, dear? (Calls out.) Noise! Noise! Make a little noise! (We hear a racket from the band.)

Flossie: (With a little smile. Twirls her hair. Pops her bubble-gum.) There’s nothing left to save.

Scoundrel Johnnie: You don’t say! Who’s the lucky fellow?

Flossie: (Easily.) That guy from Kovno stole my honour. Didn’t you know?

Scoundrel Johnnie: Fine, fine. Nothing to speak of. That’s what I get for giving you a job. With me, you play. With others, you sleep.

Flossie: (Relaxed.) S’allright, I’ll get even with him, with that Kovno Daytsh. He’ll get his. I’m suing him for thirty thousand dollars damages for breaking my heart. His only chance is to run off somewhere I can’t find him. The bastard.

Scoundrel Johnnie: You’ve got a good head on you for business, Flossie. (Forgets.) So. . . . Where’s that damned Indian? I’m not hiring

any more Jews in my business. I’ll tell you what. Jews. I’m not having any Jews work here. Not as Turks, not as Indians, not as Chinese. (Looks at his watch.) I’m afraid we’ll have to open with you, Flossie. Come. Get on the broom. It’s time to open. Hot today. Yeech. (Wipes sweat.)

Flossie: Where’s the broom?

Scoundrel Johnnie: (Fastens her to the broom. She lies down horizontally. It’s done by fastening a hook which attaches to a back-brace under her dress. The hook is hidden in the broad end of the broom. With a turn of the wings, the crowd comes into view. The music pounds. The ticket seller pulls tickets off a roll. He waves his hands wildly urging the crowd in from outside.)

Barker ( Charlie): Big Show! Big Show. Come on in. Biggest Show on di Island. ( Through a megaphone.) The Greatest Show in Coney Island. . . The Greatest Show in Coney Island. Only ten cents. Ten! Ten! Cents! Only ten cents. One dime. Two nickels! Ladies and Gentlemen. Big Show, Big Show! Show Show Show. Big-Big-Big. (Pause.) Step right up, step right up! The show is about to begin. Do you see the lady? She floats in mid air. (Passes his hand under her body.) By magic. Black magic. Black as night. Magic. Magic. Lady. Lady. Night. Night. Floats. Floats. Cock-a-doodle-do. Cock-a-doodle-do. Come on in! Come on in! Everybody in. Ten cents. Ten cents. Only ten little pennies. One dime! The Greatest and the Best that the world has to offer for ten cents. For the price of a loaf of bread. Come on in. Come on in. Everybody in. (Waves his hands as if to draw them in by magic.)

(On the left a missionary speaks in gross vulgar language. He’s a little drunk and stammers a bit.)

Missionary: Jesus will save you! He set me on my feet. (Almost falls.) He’ll put you, put you on your feet. Believe in Jesus. I say whoever doesn’t believe in Jesus Christ is a rat bastard and a lousy snot. You don’t go to church except on Sundays. Sometimes not even then. When you croak what do you think’s going to become of you? You don’t know? Alright, I’ll tell you. When you come to the Gates of Paradise, Jesus is going to give you a smack in the face. “No sir” is what he’ll say. “Boys, I haven’t prepared a place in Paradise for you. Nosiree.” (Someone rushes at him.) You’ll want to fight. Oh, alright! Sons of bitches. Jesus can fight, too. Oh, yes! Jesus can bloody all your faces—oh yes! As it is written—when Jesus came and saw you were dragging around a woman of the streets—a whore—he cried out “Stop,” Oh, yes! They were afraid and set the woman loose. Ladies and gentlemen Jesus Christ saved me. Oh yes! (Hiccups.) He saved (Hiccups.) me.

Barker: (To Missionary) Stop all this bother with Jesus. You’re interfering with business.

Missionary: God is the best business. (Hiccups.)

Barker: Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you, is it fair to ruin our business? Sunday of all days? The best day in Coney Island? I ask you, which would you rather, business or religion?

Crowd: Business, business, business!

Part of the Crowd: (To Missionary.) Pipe down! Pipe down!

Another Part: The Missionary’s right. Religion’s better than business.

Another: God is God and business is business.

Another: Business is greater than God.

 (There’s a tussle, first between Missionary and Barker and then among the crowd. The drunken Missionary has to give way.)

Missionary:  Jew! Sheeny!

Barker:  Your God’s a Jew too, a sheeny.

Missionary:  My God isn’t a Jew. He’s an Israelite. (Laughter.)

Barker:  Your God was a Jew. Not an Israelite. He was a sheeny.

Missionary:  You’re a Jew. You’re a sheeny. All Jews are sonofabitches . We should strangle you like mice, we oughta, lousy Jews. You wait. I’ll get even, God damn you.

Barker:  (Keeps pushing him.) Go on! Out of there! Before I plant one on your snout.

Missionary:  Who? Me?

Barker:  You! You!

Missionary:  You’re going to give me one in the snout?

Barker:  I’m going to give you one in the snout.

Missionary:  Who? You?

Barker:  Yes. Me.

Missionary:  (Different, half drunk.) Allright . If that’s how it is, I’ll go away.

(Exit Missionary. )

Scene Three

(The Side Show in Coney Island) Canvas tent. The ground is covered with sawdust. Cages with freaks. Above each is a plaque with his characteristics and portrait. The Barker leads a group of people from one place to another. Explains the marvels. These include A Fakir Fire-eater, Sword-Swallower, dressed in a uniform. Does tricks with cards. Finally sells Magic Horseradish for fifty cents a bottle. A Magician Performs guessing game tricks. Blindfolded, he works in cahoots with his questioner. That guy shows him, for example, a pen knife and says, “Ikh halt in hent a meserl—Tell di gentlemen vat I hev in my hend.” The rest should be said quickly, “Ikh halt in hent a meserl” (in Yiddish) The second part only is said clearly in English so the crowd doesn’t catch on.

Soap Seller(With suds on his head and hands.): Soap! Soap! Wonder Soap! (Pours water on his own head and makes suds.) This is the best soap in the world. The only soap that doesn’t change its color. All other American soaps change their color like our politicians. But not my soap. All those who suffer from diabetes, from pneumonia, chorditis, tuberculosis, from cancer, from milk-fever, from appendicitis you’ll be cured with just this very soap! Buy my soap and you’ll be beautiful as the sun, wise as the day, strong as Samson the Mighty, rich as Croesus. That’s a fact! (He is surrounded by old ladies. On to the other freaks.)

Barker:  This is Atabandu the Hindu, the greatest wonder of the century. He swallows fire the way Italians swallow noodles. The way Jews swallow matzo. The way Russians swallow kapusta. Mr. Atabandu, please.

Hindu:  (Performs tricks. Then speaks gibberish. ) Giveri, durandar, hokum, dilibanda, Africa.

Someone from the crowd:  You’re an Indian?

Hindu:  (Nods his head, yes.)

Another:  Not a Litvak?

Hindu:  (Shakes his head, no.)

Another:  Do you speak Yiddish?

Hindu:  (Shakes his head, no.)

Another:  And you’ve never been to Minsk?

Hindu:  (Overjoyed.) Minsk? Are you a Minsker? Would you believe it. . . ? (Catches himself. Goes back to speaking gibberish. Laughter from the crowd.)

A Half-Man, Half-Woman  This special attraction emerges from behind a curtain. Speaks a few words in a hoarse voice. Doesn’t look at anybody. Shows her breast: the short, flat breast and the round one.

Barker: Ladies and Gentlemen! You now stand before one of the greatest wonders of medical science: Nature has, so to speak, divided her in half and given her both sexes in the same body. (Joking.) So she could practically marry herself. But joking aside, Madam Olgarina sells a picture of her naked body. This is only available to medical students. Whoever among this distinguished

crowd is a medical student can come forward to buy. Only fifty cents. And you don’t need a diploma. You only need to tell us you’re a medical student. We’ll believe you. (Many people surge forward) We don’t believe that in such a fine audience as we see here before us today, you could find anyone who would not tell the truth. (Pause.) And now we come to the greatest wonder of the century, The Bearded Lady, Mrs. Meyer. (Leads the crowd to her.) The Lady herself would like to say a few words, but sadly, she’s caught a cold and cannot speak today. Mrs. Meyer was born in North Dakota of Spanish parents. Her father was a mathematics teacher in Barcelona. Her mother was a famous dancer in Argentina. Mrs. Meyer began growing a beard when she was sixteen years old. Instead of spending money to get rid of the hair on her face, as many women do these days, she let her beard grow. And now she has a beard that many men might envy. Mrs. Meyer speaks several languages, among them Scandinavian and Russian. Unfortunately she has a cold today. Ladies and gentlemen , buy post-cards with her photograph, only 10 cents apiece. (She offers cards for sale.)

[We omit a powerful satire on the racism of Nadir’s day which, misinterpreted, might prove a trigger—making us the target of ill-considered ballistics. The complete text appears in the print version of the play available at Amazon here.]

Barker:  And now, my friends, we stand before the very greatest wonder of our age. The Ossified Man. “Ossified” means he’s turned to stone! Mr. Williams’ case is one seldom seen in medicine. His entire body is hardened like flint. Try touching his head. Try it. Go ahead. Don’t be afraid. This is no hoax. Mr. Williams has certificates from doctors that he can at most live another six months before his heart turns to stone. Then he’s through! Mr. Williams himself would like to say a few words.

Williams:  (Lies horizontal, on display. Smokes a cigarette on a toothpick.) Ladies and gentlemen . As you can see from the testimonies that hang over my platform, little by little, my body is turning to stone. (Proud.) Today, I am the only man in America, I can say, in the entire world, who suffers from this disease. I can live at most six months before it invades my heart. Buy my post-cards. Fifteen cents apiece, fifteen cents apiece.

From the Crowd:  Why fifteen cents? With everyone else it’s ten and with you it’s fifteen.

Williams:  (Calmly.) My dear gentleman. You forget that I am the only case in all of medical science and that I can live at most six more months. Fifteen cents is no big deal. Fifteen cents apiece. Fifteen cents apiece. (Mechanically.) Postcards! Postcards. Who wants postcards?

(Crowd gives way.)

Barker:  And now, Ladies and gentlemen, we stand before the greatest wonder of the century. Lady Evelyn Nesbit Simpson.  This is the famous so-called  “Hammer Murderess”. She let her husband have it over the head with a hammer and killed him. For a long time, this was the greatest sensation in the land, as you know. Not because the lady killed her husband, but because of the racy way she killed him, and the incident that lead up to it. As you all know, the court found Lady Evelyn Nesbit Simpson not guilty and released her. Now the distinguished lady Evelyn Nesbit Simpson will tell you all the details of how she killed her husband with a hammer. (To her.) Please, Mrs. Evelyn Nesbit!

Lady Nesbit:  (Coolly filing her nails.) Ladies and gentlemen , I killed my husband on the night of February twenty-ninth. It was at 2:05 am. I had just come home from the theatre. He lay in bed, asleep. But he was not sleeping quietly as usual—he was snoring. He had a cold. It got on my nerves, so I looked for the revolver to shoot him, but I couldn’t find it. All the while, I had a headache. So I went into the bathroom and rubbed eau de Cologne on my temples. As I was leaving the bathroom, I suddenly noticed an iron hammer. The man who fixed the plumbing had left it behind. I picked up the hammer and went straight to the bedroom. I heard him still snoring away. I hit him in the head with the hammer. That shut him up. He gave a jerk, let out a cry, and that was it. The whole pillow was spattered. My husband was a gentleman and a good Christian. We were married for over nine years. He was born in North Dakota and was a businessman. I too am a good Christian and go to church every day. Here is the hammer I killed him with. (Shows the hammer.) Buy my postcards. Twenty cents apiece. Twenty cents apiece. Ladies and gentlemen. With a picture of the hammer. Thank you. (They buy.)

Barker:  (Stands next to the Fat Lady’s booth.) Ladies and gentlemen, you now stand before the greatest wonder in the world, Miss Madison, the world’s fattest lady. She weighs 380 pounds. Miss Madison is a cultivated woman and one hundred percent American. Her ancestors came to America aboard the Mayflower. Miss Madison herself belongs to the very distinguished woman’s club, The Daughters of the American Revolution, which is dedicated to remembering our heroic soldiers who have lost one or more legs in the last war. Miss Madison specializes in left legs. She knows by heart the names and addresses of all the veterans of the European war who have only left legs. Unfortunately, the lady cannot experience the joys of family life because her belly is too large. But aside from that, she’s completely normal, sexually and otherwise. She is a thoroughly normal American girl. Ladies and gentlemen, if anyone among you wishes to ask Miss Madison a question, you may do so. Miss Madison will answer any question on diet, religion or pinochle. Miss Madison will also gladly recite the names of all 9896 American soldiers, veterans of the World War who have only left legs. Please, Miss Madison.

Miss Madison:  (Speaking from memory.) Jim Dublin, 1263 Madison Ave, New York; Estery Hudson, 1229 Gotham Street, Washington; Albert Rush Nomberg, 1389 Bay Parkway, Chicago; William Anderson Midmorn, 1480 Blue Island Avenue, Detroit; John L. Piccard, 619 Lincoln Boulevard, San Francisco; Boris Esterson, 19 Hop Street, Saint Louis; Victor Hasbrook, Gandy Road, Boston  (Sees the crowd losing interest.) Buy my post-cards. Only ten cents apiece. (While the crowd is standing around The Fat Lady, the spotlight turns to “Zip”. )

Zip: (Quietly.) You’ve got to give them more humour, Charlie. Your oration, you talk is too dry.

Charlie: (Quietly.) I’m doing everything I can to hold them, Mr. Zipkin.

Zip:  Yes, but the visitors are getting bored. We can’t let them get bored. Remember the rule, Charlie. Our American audience will swallow anything, as long as you amuse them. Cut a slice of their pockets as long as you tickle them with the same scissors you used to cut their pockets. Menachem-Josef, the bastard, understands this. And P.T. Barnum, too. That’s how they cleaned up. (Different.) I hear that Menachem-Josef is making a pile of money with his Messiah. I hear. . .

Barker:  That’s what they say. Yesterday I read that he bought a section of the cemetery in Brooklyn and offered a deal to bury the dead standing. The plots are smaller, so you can bury them cheap. The New York Yiddish-English press—they’re praising him to the skies. They call him a philanthropist. “The father of the poor,” they’re calling him. The Times says the news will bring real relief to paupers who’ve put off dying because they can’t afford to get themselves buried. Now they can go ahead and die. For sixty-five dollars, even a poor man can afford to be dead. That’s what The Times says. Even if the dead have to stay on their feet all the time. It’s not a problem. Nowhere is it written that a poor man must spend all the days of his death stretched out like an aristocrat. It’s perfectly normal, it won’t bother the paupers a bit if they stand. After all, they didn’t get to sit down so much in life, either. He’s going to make a fortune, our Menachem-Josef.

Zip:  He’s like a pig’s snout. He swallows everything up. Well, s’allright. I’ll outdo him. Oh, yes. It’s true, he’s got a good head on him, our little Menachem-Josef. But Zip’s head hasn’t dried up either. Never mind. Thanks to God, Zip’s still got a head on his shoulders.

Barker: (Flattering.) I think you’ve got more brains than Menachem-Josef. That guy’s just had more luck.

Zip: (Angry.) Luck, shmuck! I’ve got luck, too. Luck? You don’t need luck. Smarts, that’s what you need. (Smacks his forehead.) Luck, he says! Well, he’s not walking around wearing a golden halo just yet. With his lousy one or two million dollars. I laugh at him. Such a rich man. Well, like him, I’m ready for it at any time. Menachem-Josef, he says.

Barker:  That’s not what I’m saying, I was just trying to say. . . Look They’re leaving already.

Zip: (Changes his costume before our eyes. Slips into a fuzzy yellow costume and puts on an outrageous comic wig. A bald cap with a bonnet on top. He picks up a fiddle and takes on the look of an imbecile with his lip hanging down. Smiles idiotically and plays the fiddle.)

Barker: (Breezily. Holds a long pose. Coughs.) Ladies and gentlemen. You now stand before the GGGGRRRREEEAAATTTEEESSSTTT wonder in the whole world and of all time. It’s “Zip”. Who is that? Zip is a riddle that no man can understand. To this very day, science has not been able to determine Zip’s race, nation or sex. Zip is raceless and sexless, without conscience or principles, un-wived, un-manned, fatherless, motherless, thoughtless and of no party. In short, he is the biggest nothing in the whole world. Zip speaks his own language. But even the greatest linguists cannot ascertain what sort of language it is. It’s not Hindustani, it’s not Spanish. It’s not Yiddish. It’s not Turkish. It’s not Tatar.  (inthe tone of a Yiddish Talmudic dispute, for comic effect.) And it’s also not not-Yiddish, and not not-Spanish, and not not-Turkish and not not-Tatar. As I said, Zip is one of the greatest riddles in the world. He also has an amusing and gentle nature. And if any of you ladies and gentlemen wish to have the innocent pleasure of spitting in a stranger’s face, you may do so. Zip is a simple man, a poor man. He won’t be offended. But if any of you distinguished ladies and gentlemen wish to spit, you are requested to spit directly in Zip’s face to avoid soiling his clothing. Our circus has spent a fortune to get clothes for Zip, the one and only complete and total idiot in the whole world. The Human Riddle. “Zip. Who is he?”

The Crowd: (With a wild racket.) Hooray! Hooray for Zip! (They start a spitting orgy.)

Zip: (Smiles good naturedly and wipes himself off.)

A Little Lady: Can you spit on his nose?

Another: And in his eyes?

Barker: Yes, you can, honourable ladies. But please, don’t hit his clothes. They cost money. And now, we ask the audience to be going. It’s getting late, and time to close the show.

Cries from the crowd: Zip! Freak! Monkey!

(The crowd chases after him to poke at him with sticks. Zip stays calm, smiles. Only the Barker’s speech saves him.)

Barker: Ladies and gentlemen. Please. Please. Stay calm. You can have as much innocent fun as you want. But we beg you, don’t poke at him. He’s our property. He costs money. (Stands in front of him to protect him from the riled up masses.)

Crowd: Freak! Zip! Monkey! Orangutan!

(The lights go down and the crowd leaves.)

(The side-show folk gather around Zip. They wipe him off with great respect. The Fat Lady kisses him. The Bearded Lady helps him out of his costume. They spray him with perfume. They dress him in a cape and top hat. They all  make way for him. Meanwhile, The Bearded Lady takes the opportunity to kiss Flossie.)

Zip: (Calm, very dignified.) Tell those two they can look for another job. This is no place for romance. Here, we work. (To them.) And when I pass by, all eyes should be on me. I have no use for insolent people. Oh, yes.

Flossie and Bearded Lady: (They turn up their noses and snap their fingers in his face.) To hell with you  I’ll tell you what. We’re going over to Menachem-Josef.

Zip: (Hostile.) Go on then, by all means. Break a leg, sonuvabitches!

Barker: (Bows like a lackey, hands him his coat and hat.) Your automobile awaits you outside, sir.

Zip: (Exits very slowly.)


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