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PLAYS & SCREENPLAYS
Science is about the clash of a Noble Prize-winning medical researcher and a brilliant young mathematician who is a fundamentalist Christian in his last year of medical school. The clash sets up, in terms of real characters in action, a monumental question of our time. What is more religious – to put yourself wholeheartedly in the service of life, with the hope of helping to improve it and save it from our own neglect and destructiveness, or to live primarily for another life?
The researcher, Dr. Alexander Morgan, is also a professor of chemistry at the medical school. Each year he invites the last-year student who got the highest grade in biochemistry to be his lab assistant. He invites Bret Wilmont, who is not sure he can take the position because rumor has it that Dr. Morgan is an atheist. Bret consults an advisor he trusts, a professor at the university’s divinity school, Dr. Signa, who tells him the opportunity may be God’s way of giving Bret a chance to bring Dr. Morgan back to Christ.
Bret carefully reveals to Dr. Morgan why he has reservations about taking the position, and Dr. Morgan reluctantly shares some of his life-devoted beliefs, which Bret, to his surprise, has a difficult time finding fault with.
Bret’s father, Pastor Frederick Wilmont, is a fundamentalist Christian who only believes in the healing power of prayer and disagrees vehemently with Bret’s career choice. He wanted Bret to become a pastor, too. Bret’s younger brother, Lyle, died of appendicitis when his father was attempting to treat his condition with prayer. Lyle’s death is one reason Bret decided to become a medical doctor and looks forward to going into practice.
During their conversations, Dr. Morgan suggests that Bret might consider going into medical research, where, he thinks, he might do some valuable work.
Bret has a long-time girlfriend, Martha, who is also a fundamentalist Christian. They plan to get married after he finishes his internship and goes into practice.
Dr. Morgan asks his assistant to dinner at his home each year. Bret comes and meets Dr. Morgan’s daughter, Megan, a first-year medical student who shares her father’s beliefs. She challenges Bret but also flirts with him.
With Dr. Morgan’s recommendation, Bret wins a post-doctoral research fellowship at Harvard in biophysics. Dr. Morgan calls his daughter to come to the lab to help celebrate when he tells Bret the good news. She shows up with a bottle of champagne and a bottle of Coke for Bret, who doesn’t drink alcohol. Bret arrives and Dr. Morgan tells him about the fellowship. Megan says how proud she is of him. Will he accept it? He is truly torn and hesitates. Then he makes his breakthrough and says, “Of course, I accept.” He even agrees to take a taste of champagne, admitting, “Actually, this stuff is surprisingly good. I just may take another sip.” Like a true mathematician, he says, “Thank you both to the tenth power.” “Here’s to ya, Bret,” Dr. Morgan says, as they all toast again, and the lights fade down.
Ted Malcolm built an American manufacturing company, retired, and turned over management to his trusted colleague, Roy Evans, who created a threatening debt by acquire some non-performing companies. The banks are closing in. Roy finds a buyer, a Japanese firm. Only trouble is, Ted is a World War II vet, and his brother was in the Navy during the war. He was killed at Pearl Harbor. Roy has invited two young Japanese executives to Ted’s house to close the deal. Ted is outraged. He tells Roy it’s impossible for him to accept it. He’d rather the company went broke. The two young Japanese executives show up. When pressed, he explains why he can’t accept their offer. One of the executives tells him his father, the president of the company, was in the Japanese air force. Ted is even more outraged, but the executive also tells him his father’s family was from Hiroshima. Can Ted make peace with the deal? What happens when the elderly president of the Japanese company arrives? Can he and Ted finally make peace with each other?
What happens when one of America’s most renowned generals becomes so incensed with what he considers the unnecessary wars America has been fighting that he tells the President to go to hell? Of course, he is dismissed from his position and retires ignominiously.
As the play begins, General Stratton is adjusting to his involuntary retirement, at home with his wife of many years, Marion. He is invited by a publisher to do his memoirs. He and his wife are concerned about the effects reliving his memories might have on him, but he feels he owes the truth of the wars he fought to the troops who served under him, as well as the parents of those who were killed or injured. He also wants to express his point of view about the urgency of a change in national policy that will make it far less likely that America will involve itself in wars that are not entirely necessary.
The publisher appoints a female collaborator, Jill Thorton. She is, in fact, the very one who has done the biography of the President with whom he lost his temper, a work for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. As she explains, she has been chosen because she knows both sides.
His wife is not entirely pleased that a woman has been selected. While she trusts her husband to be faithful, she would have preferred that the publisher had selected a man.
The collaboration begins. Jill is very probing, and reliving the memories does have serious effects on him. He begins to drink more – and to have nightmares. The troops who have died under his command begin to appear to him. Private Langhorne is the first to visit him and explains he can do so because he lives on in the general’s memory. Private Langhorne’s parents also appear. They want to know why their son had to die. General Stratton commiserates with them. He also relives the deaths of some of the other men, which he experienced directly when he was on the front as a brigadier general in Viet Nam.
Meanwhile, his son, William, who is about to graduate from West Point, is so shamed by his father’s breach of duty and ouster that he is not speaking with him. General Stratton’s father, a career general, also appears to him and expresses his shame at his son’s forced retirement. He tells his father he wants to show him something and leads him upstage. The lights come up on a cemetery, with soldiers who have died standing behind the tombstones, saluting. He tells his father, “These are some of the dead who didn’t have to die. The dead I commanded in wars that were not necessary. The dead from Arlington to community cemeteries all across this valiant but misled nation.” He leaves his father and goes among them, shaking their hands and talking with them.
He is finally so troubled by his memories that he doesn’t know if he can go on with the book. The dead troops tell him they need him to tell their story and do what he can to help prevent other young Americans from dying in wars that are not absolutely necessary. He forges ahead and finally completes it.
During the process, Jill wants to know what he’d do if the book resuscitated his reputation and he were presented with the opportunity to run for the presidency himself. He can’t even consider such a possibility. She probes to learn if another president were elected who thought highly of him and offered him a position, say, as secretary of defense, would he take it? He tells her he’d think about it but has given his life to service. It’s time for him to take life a bit easy.
He also he learns that Jill is divorced. She is attracted to him. The potential of a relationship arises, builds to a kiss, and then fails. As she tells him, “In another life, we might have been an item.” “I would have made sure of it,” he replies.
Meanwhile, his son has graduated from West Point and has been deployed to Afghanistan.
The book is a success. There is a new presidential election. He receives a call that the new President actually would like to nominate him for secretary of defense. He wavers and wants to think about it. Soon afterward, he gets another call and learns that his son, William, has been killed in Afghanistan. He breaks the news to his wife. Both take it very hard.
Alone in his study, he takes the Luger out of the armoire that his grandfather, who was also a general, took from a German officer, and considers killing himself. His son appears to him and tells him he now knows his father was right. The other guys sent him to tell him they need him to accept the nomination. His son leads him to a final meeting with the dead. He agrees to do as they ask.
In the last scene, with his wife beside him, he calls the White House and says, “I accept the nomination. Accept it gratefully and very proudly.”
I was thinking about who might be the ideal spokesperson against the violent dogmatism and the growing nuclear threat that darkens the contemporary world and could think of none better suited that Bertrand Russell.
I’ve read many of his works but decided to look into his Autobiography. As early notices of it said, it is “riveting,” “a marvel of intelligence, lucidity, and wit,” and “an extraordinary psychological revelation.”
While I know his ideas and that he dedicated much of his life to speaking on behalf of reason in our beliefs and against the nuclear threat, I did not know, for example, that both of his parents were dead by the time he was two years of age, that he contemplated suicide a number of times, that he married four times and finally found the love he had sought with his fourth wife, that he also had controversial relationships with a number of other women, and that for his pacifism and social activism, he was sent to jail earlier in life and later in life. As you know, he also received the OM and the Nobel Prize.
I began by bringing other characters to life and doing the usual sort of dialogue, but the more I thought about his life as a philosopher and social activist, the more I realized that the most valuable thing I could do is let him speak for himself.
I have provided a setup and, where needed, continuity. To let you see how the play works, I’ve attached the first five pages, which includes my setup and his prologue.
I have also set it at the time when he has just finished the third and final volume. So he is able to make the presentation with a manuscript before him. As a result, the script can act as a superlative vehicle for an actor, without his having to memorize the entire piece to perform it in a captivating way.
Toward the end, I have staged a debate about the nuclear threat between him and Lord Gladwyn, a liberal Member of Parliament at the time and a spokesman for international relations and defense. It is based on a brilliant exchange of letters the two had about the issue. While both take opposite sides, they both hold their ground persuasively.
Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations is the most popular book of quotations ever compiled. We meet him when he’s compiling the first edition. During the play, he shares favorite quotes with us, commenting as he goes along. The liberty has been taken to include quotes from later editions.
Constantine, whom history has called great, was the first Roman emperor to become a Christian. His life is a curious mixture of saint and murderer. He raised Christianity from a persecuted sect to the official religion of the Roman Empire, yet he ordered the execution of, among many others, his first son, an apparently admirable and courageous young man, and his second wife, with whom he had three sons. He waited until he was about to die to be baptized, because he believed, as ancient Christians did, that the rite cleanses one of all sins. The play picks him up at this time and asks him to justify his life. Should he be saved or damned? The play is, as it should be, primarily a work of the imagination and must finally be judged as such. Yet, given the nature of the subject, an essential goal I set for it is historical accuracy. I believe I have achieved it within the reliability of history as it has come down to us. If you find the work interesting, I have achieved my goal. If you are offended by any part of it, I can only refer you to history.
A one-character play about growing up in a coal town in Pennsylvania that, in Pennsylvania history books, is referred to as “the coke capital of the world.” At one time, it had more millionaires per capita than any other city or town in America. Frick and Morgan were both there. Trouble is, the steel ovens in Pittsburgh, which the town used to ship the coke to, switched to gas. An irreversible decline began, and today it has less than half the population it did during the days when coke was king.
The epic movie musical about the computer bug who saved the Internet.
The story of the invention of the MRI, which was achieved, despite enormous scientific skepticism, by an American physician.
The story of the great tenor’s adult life.
Science fiction, an unusual genre for me, and a horrifying tale, while I usually write, what I consider, intelligent comedy or drama.