Messiah in America: Act IV

 Scene One

At the side show. It’s still early, there are no spectators yet. Charlie is helping Zip into his outfit.

Zip: Can it really be? Has Menachem’s gang really made a quarter of a million with their Messiah Holdings Company?

Charlie: That’s what they say, Mr. Zipkin.

Zip: Hmmm. . . With this Galitsianer character? With that Yid?

Charlie: I hear they’re getting ready to go on a nationwide tour with their Galitsianer Messiah and that little Jackie Bluffer’ll be traveling with him.

Zip: This is more serious than I thought.

Charlie: And that’s not all. Little Menachem and his gang have taken out a patent on his Messiah. And if we bring our own, they’ll hit us for a million dollars in damages.

Zip: (Thinks.) That’s a real problem, Charlie, a very real problem. (Different.) No, it’s nothing. Legally, he has no grounds. He can’t stop us. Menachem’s outfit only has a patent on a Messiah with a beard. But our Messiah doesn’t have a beard.

Charlie: Theirs doesn’t have much of a beard left either. You’d be surprised how quick that simpleton de-greened.  Suddenly, their Galitsianer Messiah thinks he’s the Sage of the Age.

Zip: Well. . . He’s a capable guy, this Galitsianer! You can’t deny it: those Galitsianers are capable people. You’ve got to give them that. But I think our Kovno Messiah is better and we can beat their guy. First, because our Messiah is better looking. Second, he has better connections in the press. Third, he’s a Zionist.

Charlie: They say the other guy’s become a Zionist, too—maybe a Labour Zionist, don’t remember.

Zip: What are you saying? That’s no good.

Charlie: My advice is, we should amalgamate. Have what they call a moiger. I hold with the rule that in union, there is strength. You’ve both got a gold mine. You don’t have to divide your forces.

Zip: (Pensive.) Ha? What did you say? Divide forces?. That’s true. Our forces are divided. Together, we could remake the world. Two Messiahs at the same time. One for women, one for men; one for intellectuals, one for the masses; one for the Americanized, one for immigrants. Do you understand what this means, Charlie? It means we can corner the market in Messiahs and shut out the possibility of any competition. It means not just money, but power and prestige. We redeem whoever we like, and if we don’t like you, you don’t get redeemed.

Charlie: From what?

Zip: What’s the difference, from what? We redeem them, and that’s that. A redeemed man is a brand new man, Charlie. You know that yourself.

Charlie: An unredeemed man can’t compare to a redeemed man, that’s true. The thing is just. . .

Zip: What?

Charlie: The thing is, if we come to him, to Menachem, and not him to us, he’ll grab us by the throat and strangle us. You don’t know our little Menachem. A cut-throat, a bandit.

Zip: True enough, Charlie. But that’s the whole point. It’s because he’s a bandit, a cut-throat, that we need him as a partner. He’s talented, there’s no denying it.

Charlie: Who’s denying it? Menachem’s a genius.

Zip: Hmm. . . If he’s a genius, what am I?  A potted palm?

Charlie: You’re a genius, too, but a different kind. Subtler. That guy’s all flame and fire. He’s a pickpocket.

Zip: Bah, he’s not such a threat. That guy just did it first and grabbed the patent. That’s what the problem is. Oh, yes. That’s not good, not good at all.

Charlie: If the court holds that his patent applies to all Messiahs, even those without beards, then—God forbid—we’re over a barrel.

Zip: We’re not quite there yet. Luckily, I have some influence in court. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be better to join forces. But we’ve got to make sure he doesn’t get wind that we’re behind him.

Charlie: Do you know what I think, Mr. Zipkin?

Zip: What?

Charlie: This Messiah of theirs. I think we can undermine him a bit.

Zip: I don’t understand.

Charlie: It’s simple. Since he’s always proclaiming that his Messiah has come to redeem all classes — even Christians, we can take this to mean he’s an internationalist. If so, how do we know he’s not a Communist? And that he wasn’t sent from Moscow by Comintern?

Zip: But there’s the problem that he’s a Galitsianer.                           

Charlie: That doesn’t mean anything. He can be a Galitsianer working for the Comintern. Look at Karl Radek.

Zip: What are you saying? Karl Radek? The Bolshevik? Comintern?

Charlie: Of course, of course. And if he’s a Bolshevik, he should be deported. Eh? What do you say to that, Mr. Zipkin?

Zip: I’m not sure . . Let’s see. . . We’ll keep that as a last resort. You forget, Charlie, that we’ll have to get to the Goyim, too. You can’t make a living from Jews alone. And you’re forgetting another thing, Charlie—our Messiah is a Kovner and Kovno once belonged to Russia.

(Enter Jackie Bluffer)

Jackie: Hello, Mr. Zipkin. Hello, Charlie.

Zip: Hello.

Charlie: Hello. What’s new?

Jackie: Nothing. I was passing by and I thought, it’s still early. There won’t be any business yet. I’ll stop by and see how things are going with you guys.

Zip: With us, thank God, things are alright. How’re things with you?

Jackie: Also alright.

Charlie: Alright?

Jackie: Alright.


Zip: And nothing new with you either?

Jackie: With us? No. And with you?

Charlie: Nothing new with us, either. How’s your Messiah doing?

Jackie: How’s he doing? It seems he’s learned to play poker.

Zip: And that’s all the news?

Jackie: You probably know we have a patent on him.

Zip: How would I know that?

Jackie: I thought you knew. Our patent is on all Messiahs for all time in all lands.

Zip: Now if I remember correctly, there’s a rule in patent law that you can only patent the original. But if someone else comes along and improves on the article, the first guy’s rights are null and void.

Jackie: But you have to show, precisely, without doubt, that the new article is an improvement on the old one. A step further, so to speak.

Zip: We can do that.

Jackie: You’re a pretty smart guy, Mr. Zipkin. How can you say such a foolish thing? Who can prove that he has a better Messiah than us? And if he is better, what’s better about him?

Charlie: What’s better about him? He’s better because—

Zip: He’s better because he’s not a . . . foreigner, a greenie.

Jackie: But is he a Jew? Then what’s the difference?

Zip: A great deal of difference. A Messiah who’s been to college and can play football and dance the Black Bottom. Compared to a greenie Messiah who’s carrying God knows what to infect America.

Charlie: My thoughts exactly.

Jackie: What’s he going to infect with? He doesn’t have trachoma. He doesn’t have tuberculosis either. And he doesn’t have smallpox, either. And he’s already had the measles, otherwise they wouldn’t have let him into the country.

Zip: That’s not what I mean.

Charlie: That’s not what we mean.

Jackie: So what kind of infection could it be?

Zip: I dunno. . . He could for example infect America with Bolshevism. I’m not saying it’s true, God help us. But still, it could happen. Is he an internationalist? Does he redeem all walks of life and all nations? You yourself say as much. So what does that mean? It means his ideology is completely Bolshevistic. That is, I’m not saying it is, but it could be. That’s what people are saying.

Jackie: Am I crazy or are you crazy? What do you take me for? Crazy? What is this “Bolshevik”? That guy knows as much about Bolshevism as a chicken knows about Yom Kippur.

Zip: That doesn’t mean anything. A person can be a Bolshevik and not even know it. And you know how much they like reds down in Washington. Especially greenie reds. You’re probably familiar with the law regarding immigrants who are enemies of the state?

Charlie: What? You think Jack doesn’t know? What do you think? He just arrived in America yesterday?

Jackie: (Pause.) Hear me out gentlemen. These things don’t concern us here. I came to talk business, that is, I’m speaking not for myself, but for the firm of Menachem-Josef, which I represent.

Zip: What kind of business could I have with Menachem-Josef? That guy’s a fly-by-night. I’m different. I’m solid. A rock. A block of flint is what I am! Oh yes. I run a respectable business. With a solid foundation. A deep foundation. That’s what kind of man I am. Menachem-Josef has made a lot of empty noise with his half-baked Messiah.     

Jackie: Half-baked?                                  

Zip: Half-a-Messiah. Half-a-Messiah. Maybe he’d be the real deal in Warsaw or Lemberg or Koidanov. But not in New York. Not in America. Not in the Twentieth Century. Not in the Century of Progress. (Pause.) I have a Messiah.

Charlie: We have a Messiah.

Zip: A young guy, with muscles. A heartthrob. A Zionist. With stature. An athlete. He’s won prizes at football and weight-lifting. He’s a second Samson. Yes. Yes. And furthermore. . .

Charlie: And furthermore—

Zip: Our Messiah won’t come creeping on an ass like yours. He’ll blast into New York on a motorcycle, accompanied by a squadron of firemen in yellow automobiles. Overhead, we’ll be flying our airplane with a message written in smoke “Messiah Has Come. He Is Here. The Newest Messiah. Latest Style. Up-To-Date Fashion. Comme il faut. Nothing Better.”

Jackie: Hmm. . . All very well said. If you have someone to bring on a motorcycle that is. If you have a Messiah so to speak.

Zip: We already have one—

Charlie: We already have one—

Jackie: I know you have a Messiah. The question is whether someone’s going to put him in the slammer before he has a chance to come riding on a motorcycle.

Zip: Who’s going to put him in the slammer?

Jackie: Well I’m not going to do it. He didn’t defile me. He didn’t rob me of my honour.

Zip: (Startled.) And who did he defile?

Jackie: A woman, apparently.

Zip: (Feigns ignorance.) And who’s the woman? If we might ask?

Jackie: You might. It’s no secret. In a couple of days everybody will know. The case is ready to go to court.

Zip: So let’s hear. Who’s he supposed to have violated, this Kovno Messiah of ours?

Charlie: Who?

Jackie: (Cool.) He violated the innocent Flossie who used to work in our office.   (Melodramatic.) He robbed her of her honour.

Charlie: Ha-ha! From her you have to rob it? My God. My God.

Jackie: Please, please, please. Flossie is just as innocent as anyone else. Besides, she has a witness that she screamed. A clear-cut case of rape. You understand, that’s apart from damages. Eighty thousand dollars for breaking her heart.

Zip and Charlie: (Exchange glances.) Hmm. . . So that’s how it is

Jackie: That’s how it is.


Zip: You know what I’ll tell you, Jack, never mind this “defile-shmefile” stuff. We’re men. We know what this is about. And if it comes to court, I’ll have something to say, too. And as to Flossie, Charlie has something to tell, too. . . Charlie?

Charlie: I know I’ve never slept with her, not even once.

Zip: Shhh. . . No one’s asking you.

Charlie: And you think I’m worried about people saying our Messiah’s a Communist. Ridiculous.

Jackie: Perhaps. But the bad press alone can put a shadow on business. Even if it comes out later that there was nothing to it. So I ask you, do we have good merchandise? There’s only two of us at the fair. Both capable men. Both businessmen.

Charlie: Geniuses!

Jackie: Geniuses!

Zip: Both honourable men! Both men who understand business. So why the hell do we need to be in competition? I have a Messiah for women—you have a Messiah for men—Good! I have an Americanized Messiah, you have a greenie—Fine! You’re a theater producer, I have a side-show— Fine! Say. . . You know what just occurred to me? It’s just occurred to me we could have prize fight, a boxing-match between the two Messiahs. Right here at the side-show. A boxing match between two Messiahs. First, for the publicity. Second, we can make a buck. What sport wouldn’t pay fifteen dollars for a ticket to see two Messiahs fight it out? That’s number one. Then we get another pay-off right after the fight we’ll write the loser off as a False Messiah, and we’ll be left with the True Messiah—the winner. We make out on two fronts. One, we establish our Messiah Cartel on solid ground. One man instead of two; two, we don’t have to pay the other guy. We save half the cost. And three, we shut out any further competition. They’ll be scared to fight us.

Jackie: All in all, I like it. I’ll run straight to Mr. Menachem-Josef with this and we’ll see what we can do. This whole business with the fight—it’s got me hooked. It’s a great idea—A fight between two Messiahs! No small thing! One Messiah slugs. The other, a solid blow. Right in the snout. Bam! One with a bloody nose. The other with a black eye. Haha. If that don’t put America back on its feet, I don’t know what will.

Charlie: It’ll do it, it’ll do it. It’ll rock the nation. We’ll pile up mountains of cash. Not to mention the glory! The glory! No small thing, glory.

Zip: (Delighted) A fight between two Messiahs! Even America has never seen the likes of that.

Jackie: So, gotta run. Goodbye. Goodbye.

Zip: So, we can open. Make some noise out there. (Yells.) Look alive! (Noise. People start to pour in. More noise. Curtain falls for several seconds.)

Charlie: Ladies and gentlemen don’t go away. Don’t go away. The show is about to begin. (Automatically.) Big Show. Big Show. Biggest Show in Coney Island. (Helps Flossie down from the broom. She disappears off the rope inside.)

Charlie: (Quietly to Flossie.) Send in your boyfriend, the Bearded Lady. And take the broom.

(Enter Jim)

Jim: (A tall, thin boy with a beard. Smokes a long-stemmed pipe.) Well?

Scoundrel Johnnie: Dammit, put out the pipe. Your mouth is going to stink, Jim. You forget that you’re a woman. (Tragic.) Man, if somebody decides to cop a feel, I’m in big trouble. Have you put on your gaff at least? Women come up and talk to you. You’ve got to be careful. Heaven forbid, I should be so unlucky. You can’t let the audience, God forbid, find out you’re a fake. We’ll be kaput. (Yells.) Our luck could run out. They’re watching us with a thousand jealous eyes. Just waiting for us to fail

Jim: Why are you yelling, Mr. Zipkin? You can speak quietly.

Zip: I’ll yell. If you had sixty-thousand dollars invested in this business, you’d yell, too. And you show up without a girdle.

Jim: Who told you I’m not wearing a girdle? Go ahead, feel. (Zip gives a feel. Calms down.) Don’t worry. I didn’t forget. (Grumbles.) I’m getting sick of this whole circus thing. For this lousy business I’ve got to pay for a girdle. (Gets dressed, plumps up his breasts.) That’s all I need. I need this like I need a burst appendix. Why did I give up being a photographer? Did I earn so badly? And it was fun. (Remembers.) I scared that Messiah to death. (Imitates.) “Yankel, tell him not to hurt me.” “Do I have to, Yankel?” “Well, you gotta do what you gotta do.” (Differently.) I’d like to see him now, that greenie zealot, Menachem-Josef’s Messiah. A real big shot these days. He’s filthy with money now. (Sad.) And me? Moron. that I am, I went and became the Bearded Lady. That guy at least has made a name for himself with his beard. A well-known Jew. And me? A fraud. A Coney Island fake. Like the goy who’s half man, half woman. Poor thing. They cut off one of her breasts. A victim of cancer. So she shows the flat breast, it’s supposed to be the male side, and the other side, the woman’s. Devil take it. A deathly sick woman and she has to make a living showing her troubles. (Shudders.) Brrrr. . . . You and your Coney Island.

Zip: My Coney Island? Why on earth mine? All America is Coney Island, fool. Fake, swindle, bluff—that’s what America is built on. From the earliest times, people have wanted bread and circuses. Today they want the same. And the less bread, the more circus you’ve got to give them. So we give it to them, we give them circuses. Circus is so much cheaper than bread. Especially a Coney Island circus. (Rubs his hands.) I’m not complaining, brother.

Jim: Well, yes. . . If you work as a freak, I understand. You make a good living from it, live in luxury, have your own villa by the sea, drive a Packard automobile. But me? What do I get out of it? Thirty dollars a week. It’s all Flossie’s fault. She says, it’s not nice to be an ordinary worker, a photographer. Find a better job, more genteel, she says. Now I’ve got to fuss around with this stuff. (Pokes his breasts.)

Zip: (Helps him with his outfit.) Don’t grumble, brother. Don’t grumble. You have a good job and you earn an honest penny. (Yells.) Noise! Make some noise! What are you? Asleep there?

Jim: The Ossified Man makes more than me. And he doesn’t work at all. He just lies there, dying peacefully, waiting for his heart to turn to stone. That’s work? But somehow, he makes 50 dollars more than me. And even the woman with her breast cut off makes more than me. What? She has cancer, so just because I don’t have cancer, I can’t make a living?

Zip: You forget, brother, that he and the Fat Lady are the only ones in our circus who aren’t fakes. Besides. You think I want to pay the Ossified Man so much? But what can you do? He’s the only one at the fair. How many people do you know whose blood is turning to stone? I’ll tell you the truth. I’m worried about what I’m going to do six months from now when he dies. He’s our main attraction. Aside from me, aside from Zip. Without me, the circus isn’t worth a plugged nickel. Everyone’ll tell you that, Jim. And you know it too, Jim. Oh yes. All Coney Island knows it. That the circus depends on “Zip”, The Human Riddle, the “What is it?”, as I called myself. “Zip? What is it?” That name makes money.

Jim: I’m a bigger attraction than the woman with cancer. There aren’t a lot of Bearded Ladies. Especially not with beards as long as mine. (Strokes his beard.)

Zip: Here’s what I say: take care of your beard. Look after it and it’ll earn you respect. Don’t forget, your strength lies in your beard.

Jim: You think I don’t take care of it? At night, I keep it in a pouch. In the morning, I wash it. By day, I sun it, so it’ll turn blond. What else can I do?

Zip: I’m not criticizing you. I’m just saying that if a man wants to work his way up, he can’t be lazy. We live in a great country, Jim, a great land. A real talent won’t go to waste. Take the champion spitter from Philadelphia for example. He makes over a million dollars a year. Or take me, Jim. What was I eight years ago? A poor kid, a street urchin, with my belly button on display. Until I had the brilliant idea to become a freak. From then on, I was alright. Oh yes. I thought like this: inside every man, there’s a little bit of a freak. But he’s ashamed to show it. So if they see a real freak, they whinny like horses, they squeal with delight like a child that sees itself in the mirror for the first time. “Brother, be a freak,” I told myself. “You’ll be a man and eat in style.” I thought, if a crooked guy like Menachem-Josef can make a million dollars, you should be able to make more. A lot more. You’ll out-do him. Oh yes. You, Mr. Zipkin, you will bury him so good, they’ll never find him. You’ll beat him to pieces as we say in America.

Jim: (Jealous.) Well. Who could compare with you, Mr. Zipkin? You’re a genius. We should all be so lucky. That’s not a compliment. But the truth is. . .

Zipkin: (Barely hears what Jim is saying.) Oh, people will laugh. Let them laugh. Silently, I’m laughing at them. They give me their pennies and they’re bigger freaks than we are, Jim. It’s just that they don’t get paid for it, and we do. (Yells outside.) Noise. Noise. Noise! What are you? Asleep out there for God’s sake? (Almost automatically.) Big Show, Big Show, Biggest Show in Coney Island. (Pause)

Zip: (Delves further into his apologia.) Yes. So what if they spit in my face? They spit in my face. I hold that this whole life is being spit in the face and cast aside. I’m telling you, Jim. Me. “Zip”. The Greatest Freak on Earth. Me. The Human Riddle, the “What Is It?”, boss of this here whole side-show. Me, who’s worth over a hundred thousand dollars. I’m telling you. Oh yes. This whole life is one big spit in the face. Beyond that, what difference does it make whether it’s our own spit inside our cheeks or someone else’s outside our cheeks. It’s all the same, Jim. All the same. Abraham Lincoln said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” I say the opposite. Like the great circus man P.T. Barnum, I say, “You can fool all of the people all of the time.” Oh yes. People are children: the more you fool them, the more they love you. I believe in bluff. The God of Bluff is the greatest God on earth, Jim! Greater than Jesus of Nazareth, greater even than Edison or Ford. He is the only God and you should pray to him with all your heart. Otherwise you’re nothing. Otherwise you won’t be a success. I made a pact with myself: I won’t serve old Daddy Jehovah and not his baby boy Jesus, either. I will serve only Him—The Yellow One, the Almighty, who is pure tongue, pure ear, pure desire, pure appetite, pure life. Do you understand, Jim? They think I bluff for the sake of money. They’re wrong. I’m an idealist: I bluff for the sake of bluff. For example, I established a joint-share company and sold shares in my circus with the aim of fleecing people. I was sure the company would go bankrupt in a few months. But it turned out the opposite. The business started to pay. And as president of the joint-share company, I should have declared a dividend. But it just didn’t feel right. True, I said to myself, I could earn more if I don’t declare bankruptcy. But it’s not about the money—it’s a matter of principle! And my principle was bluff; I really suffered when things didn’t go as planned. (Poetically.) Oh yes. I am not a man without principle, Jim. I want you to know that.

Jim: I know. I know, Mr. Zipkin. You don’t need to tell me.

Zipkin: (With a deep sigh.) I’ve got to change for work. The show is about to begin. (Outside, it’s getting louder.) Today is a hot Sunday and they . . . nothing. . . (Gestures to the musicians outside.) They’re asleep. The papers say we’ll get half a million people in Coney Island today. (As if to himself. Licks his lips at the thought) Oh, I love a day like this. (Descriptive.) It’s hot. Almost suffocating. You sweat. The crowd sweats. You swear. You can’t stand each other. The beast is aroused—it must be entertained. Bread! Circus! Cheap side-show! Coney Island! One dime, ten cents. More than ten cents at a time, they won’t give you, the poor devils! But ten-cent-pieces, they’ll give you as many times as you can fool them. And the dimes become dollars, and the dollars become hundreds, and the hundreds become millions. And if you’ve got a million, you’re alright. And with a couple of million, I, “Zip”, can be President of America, President of the richest republic in the world. And they’re asleep. (Gestures outside.) They don’t care. They’re asleep. (Yells.) Hey! What are you? Asleep out there? Can’t you see? They’re falling down in the street in this heat. (Happy.) What a day! What a day! Only nine o’clock and you can’t breathe. (Yells louder.) Hey there, boys, look alive!

(A fearful noise from all sorts of instruments.)


The complete book, Messiah in America, may be purchased at Amazon.

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