A Waterbird Talk
by Dominick Argento
(Adaptation ofthe Chekhov monologue "On the Harmfulness Of Tobacco" by the composer)
(Peering quizzically over the footlights.)
and.. . gentiemen?
it has been suggested...
(Quick glance into the wings as before.)
...to my wife that I deliver an illustrated leeture, in the interests of charity. I am not, strictly speaking, a professor, nor do I hold any learned degrees. I have,however, over the past thir ty years, developed a certain capacity for observation. More and more it has he come my habit simply to observe; to observe the world about us and to stud y all rnanner of things; to try to understand and to share that understanding with others. Some years ago, I composed a very long essay entitled."Seorpions, Spiders and Centipedes." My daughters all seemed to enjoy it---especially those sections on spider's webs and how they serve as both nest and trap.
(Looks to the wings for help; listens, nods turns back to audience)
but their mother thought it was ...
(His attention is immediately called to the wings again; listens, nods, turns back to announce the correction.)
well, it really doesn't matter: I tore it up anyway.
This evening I would like to talk about "Water Birds" and the human significance of our feathered neighbors. And I will accornpany these brief remarks with sonle iilustrationsof rny own design.
I must tell you first that, fond as I am of birds, I have a terrible dread of water a copletely irrational fear of drowning. But my wife insisted:
'Don't you dare embarrassme againnone of your awful bugs: I warn you!'
So Water Birds it shall be.
Romanza: Clarinet and Marimbal
(He projects the first slide: Audubon plate 266.)
Here we have a farnily of Cormorants.Phalacrocorax carbo. They live almost entirely on fish, which they capture, under water by swim-ming with both wings and feet. Shy creatures, really, despite their stern appearance, wary and difficult to approach.
(He demonstrates the correct procedure, slowly approaching the screen with exaggerated caution, holding the pointer behind him.) He remains perplexed. Then he taps the projector with his pointer. The image returns. He grins sheepishly at the audience, then proceeds in earnest.)
The young, here, are taken care of until fullgrown. Why, I have seen as many as six and seven full-grown children virtually crowding the parents out of their own house...
excuse me, their own nest.
In courtship, the male, here, swims about the female raising his wings and tail. He draws his head over his back and cries a guttural note like the grunt of a pig. As he... as he seems to be doing. . . here?
(Something he had not noticed before about the slide catches his eye.)
He goes up to the screen and studies the male Cormorant preclosely, puzzled and suspicious.) His manner clearly suggests that the slide differs from his recollection of it.. but failing to solve the problem, he continues.
Whereupon the femal meekly sinks beneath the water while the male sinks down above her until only his head is to be seen.
For awhile, all is quite still. Then a rippling starts spreading out around him . sdddenly the water seems alive. Soon both spring up and swim joyously in littie circles about each other, happily croaking all the while ...
(His final words are covered by another burst of significant coughing from the wings)
(The Lecturer breaks off and blinks his right eye at the audience.)
I beg your pardon! Whenever I lecture or get excited, my right eye has a tendency to blink like that, a condition I acquired man y years ago. On September thirteenth, to be exact. I remember, it was the very day that my wife gave birth to her fourth daughter, Veronica. Terribly ernbarrassingmy condition, I mean. All her daughters were born on the thirteenth. Once she...
(Renewed coughing from the wings)
(Glancing at his pocketwatch)
as our time is short...
The Roseate Tern
Barcarolle: Harp and Glockenspiel
(Projects next stide:Audubon plate 240)
Stern dougali, or the graceful Rose Tern. A bird so ethereal, it seems fit for only the soft airs of the Mediterranean. Mlost graceful of all the waterhirds: they hover so lightly over the waves, I call them 'humming -birds of the sea, the embodiment of youth and jo y. Tley are readily identified by their elegant shape which ta pers and swells in lines of matchless beauty frorn the slender pointed beak to the snow-white tails. But most of all- I should like to point out the delicate, tints and rosy flush of their breasts and underparts here.
Did I tell you that my wife keeps a music school for young ladies?
(Violent coughing from the wings.)
She told me not to forget to mention it here in passing.
(A loud gasp fron the wings and the sound of retreating footsteps.)
A prospectus of the school sells for thirty cents.
(Produces several copies from his pocket.)
(Sound of a door slam.ming in the wings. He looks in the direction of the sound, momentarily puzzled. Then he looks back at the audience: he is smiling broadlY.)
I could probably, let you have one for tweny cents.
No? Thirteen cents?
(He blinks again and moves closer to the audience.)
Oh, she loves to cornplain, she cornplains all the time about her huge expenses.
(For a moment it appears he is going to resume his lecture.)
(He changes his mind and returns.)
Well I happen to know she has put away for ty thousand in her own name,while I barely manage to...
(Abrupt silence.. a few soft bird calls can be heard.)
well, no use talking about that..
(Looks into wings to confirm his wife's absence.)
I take care of the housekeeping, buy the provixions, look after the servants, keep accounts, walk dogs, catch mice. 0h---not as easy as you might think. Yesterday for example nmning round incircles- trying to do a dozen different errands, I forgot to buy butter and eggs. For dinner she was going to prepare her special pancakes.
0h--- was she furious! 0h---was she furious! Booby! she said - whenever she isin a bad mood,she calls me, she always is "Booby" or "loon!" You booby! Can't you do anything right?"
So, last night "Booby" had to go to bed with out his supper.
(For a few seconds, his thoughts seem to be elsewhere; then:)
So, shall we proceed?...
Spinning Song: Flute and Celesta
(Projects another slide: Audubon plate 215.)
(He doesn't notice that the slide is inverted.)
The Northern Phalarope. Lobipes lobatus, or Web-footed Peep: the little swimming Sandpiper. This beautiful bird has the..
(About to point to the lower right edge of the screen he sees his error.)
...interesting habit of spinning around on the... oops Sorry.
(Hastily corrects the slide.)
The Northern Phalarope. Lobipes lobatus, or Web- footed peep, the little swimming Sandpiper. This beautiful bird has the interesting habit of spinning around on the surface of the water, creating tiny whirlpools in order to stir up the miniature marine life on which it feeds. The female, up here, is the larger and brighter colored reversing the usual roles. It is even thought that the female does the courting. The demure little male builds the nest, incubates the eggs, cares for the young like a mother, while the giddy bright ladies all gather together as though they organized women's clubs.
In common, however, with other birds, it is still the male that sings; although unlike the songster birds, doubt that the Phalarope sings to attract a female.
His voice is soft and mellow but sad; the typical note being a little trump, trump, trump, trump. Uttered in a gentle musica manner. Something like this:
( Goes and seats himself at the piano.)
(Strikes a few arpeggios to test the tuning.)
Consolation: Piano Solo
( He continues to improvise, completely at ease.)
Ah, how I love music! At one time- I was go-ing to become a musician. Naturally, she oesn't. Like music, I mean.
No birds ever sang for her. No string quartets. No operas for her. She won't even sing hymns in a church to save her own soul.
(Still accompanying himself at the piano he sings proudly in a splendid voice.)
To every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide
Then it is the brave man chooses
While the cow ard stands aside:
New occasions come but rarely.
Offring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever:
'Twixt the darkness and the light.
(He continues to remain at the piano, accompanying himself.)
By the way, I teach solfeggio and arithmetic and chemistry and geography and history and Latin and Latin and Latin and Latin and Latin and Latin and Latin and Latin!
Lobipes lobatus; Phalacrocorax carbo; Sterna dougalli. For dancing, drawing or singing, my wife charges extra.;
I also teach dancing, drawing and singing. Our school is located in Waterloo Lane... Number thirteen!
(He strikes a harsh chord and rises suddenly to pace agitatedly about the rostrum. At points indicated he crosses the beam of light between projector and screen which, temporarily blinds him and superimposes his enlarged shadow among the images of the birds.)
I suppose my life has been a failure because the number of our house is thirteen. And all my daughters were born on the thirteenth.
(An idea comes. He stops pacing and ponders; closes his eyes and mentally counts while his pointer jabs in space.)
I might have known! Even the house has thirteen windows.
Thirteen! Thirteen! Nothing succeeds with me. I've grown old and stupid. Of course, l seem cheerful and happy; after all, here I am, delivering a lecture on the habits of waterbirds.
Oh, but if you only knew. If you only knew how I long to cry out at the top of my voice!
(He moves quickly to the footlights and anxiously surveys the audience.)
Only there's nobody there to cry out to. Your daughters, you will say. Ha! ha! My daughters. I try to talk to them and they only laugh at me.
Latin I taught them, and singing and drawing but that much they managed to learn flom her! Oh, sometimes I yearn, I yearn to fly away, away, fly away to the ends of the earth to fly away like...like...
Marcia all'italiana: Horn and Timpani
(Suddenly remembers something; returns to the projector; advances next slide: Audubon plate 2M.)
...the Atantie Puffin Fratercula artica artica.
Among the waterbirds, this Puffin is regarded as perhaps the most grotesque because it has an uncouth beak; truly a remarkable appendage, to be sure, as one can plainly see. Very large and flat and banded with three primary colors: yellow, red and blue. A sight that's only seen at mating time, thus prompting one observer to remark that upon his nose the Puffin wears his wedding clothes. It's flight is rapid but ungainly, even painful, with wings too short for flying beating violently, like the helpless frenzied thrashing of drowning man, always think: although others seem to find that it resembles nothing more than bumble bee. In any case, the creature is so awkward that my girls made up this little rhyme about it, which I quote.
Whethcr at rest or on the wing, the Puffin is indeed a curious thing, it is indeed a curious thing! Whether on the wing or at rest, indeed the Puffin is bizarre at best, quite bizarre at best!"
Perhaps more curious still is its call - a kind of deep-throated, mirthless laugh, like laughing in the throat with the lips kept closed, like this:
(Imitating the call.)
I might add that they remain mated for life. At their breeding places they come and go with the most amazing sense of punctuality. In fact, their habits are so regular and fixed that when the time for fall migration comes the parents will depart, leaving their own fledglings, which have not acquired the full use of their wings, behind to a wintry death...
Did I mention that we have seven daughters? No, I'm sorry, six, I be4ieve...
(Closes his eyes and mentally counts using the pointer.)
Seven! Seven! The eldest, Anne, is twenty-seven; Marguerite, the youngest, seventeen. I have been married thirty-three years.
The best years of my life, roughly speaking. They have flown by in one brief moment. One endless miserable rnoment!
(He turns away from the audience. Unintentionally his gaze goes to the screen: he regards it a moment with apparent distaste.)
As I was saying, our girls are not yet married. Not a one. And do you know why? Because no man has ever yet set eyes on them! And why? Because my wife refuses to give parties! And why? She never invites anyone to dinner! But why? Because she is a stingy, illtempered quarrelsome old crow of a wife and that is why no one ever comes to our house!
(Pleased with his outburst, he is about to resume the lecture. Changes his mind.)
(Coming closer to the footlights)
Do you know any young men the girls may be seen during Easter and Christmas holidays at their Aunt Helen's, the one who always wears a yellow dress with polka-dots.... as if spiders were crawling all over her.
(Goes to the projector and advances the next slide - Audubon plate 248 - but pays no attention to it and return.s immediately to the footlights.)
She serves refreshments, too. Free! So when my wife isn't watching, one can really..
(He takes an iniaginary drink.)
(His right eye blinks.)
I must admit I become a bit tipsy on just one small drink. Then I get such a wonderful feeling and at the same time I'm very sad. For some strange reason I always tlilnk of my youth. And then this overwhelming urge to run away. To throw everything over and run away without ever looking back.
Away from this vulgar, cheap existence that has turned me into a pitiful old fool. To run away, run away from that stupid, petty, mean, mean, mean devil of a wornan who has tormented me for thirty-three years! run away from the music, from the classroom - all this shabbiness, all her vulgarities, all her...
(The pointer that he's been holding in both hands cracks smoothlyv in half with a sound like the report of a rif le.)
And come to a halt somewhere far, far away. In a field. And to stand there alone and motionless, like a tree or post or a scarecrow, beneath the wide, black sky, and all night long to watch the bright moon, the silent moon. And to think of nothing at all... to forget the past and remember nothing at all, nothing at all.
Oh, God! Oh,God! How I long not to remernber anything! How I long to tear off this cheap frock coat I wore at my wedding all those years a go.
(He tears it off violently: in the process,, it gets ripped.)
...in which I'm forever giving lectures in the interests of charity!
(He tramples the coat, hils pince-nez falls off and dangles, on its ribbon.)
I am old and as wornout as this shabby, pitiful waistcoat. Just look!!
(Turn.s round to show its threadbare back.)
I want nothing at all! Not now! Not ever!
Once when I was young, when was ambitious, might have been a... I planned, I hoped, I dreamed, how often I used to dream but now, nothing. I want nothing but rest.
(Exhausted, he sinks into the chair. For a while he remains seated motionless and oblivious as he appeared at the beginning. The chorus of various birds can be heard again, calling faintly in the distance. The Lecturer is weeping.
(Then, quietly and to himself he sings:)
"And the choice goes by foreVer:
'Twixt the darkness and the light.
(Then his gaze shifts to the screen where the ignored slide has remained projected. For several moments he regards the screen silently, still weeping.)
Elegy: Oboe and Chimes
(He co n tin aes to fa ce the screen, his back to the audience.)
The Pied-Billed Grebe. Podilymbus podiceps. The lowest form of bird life. Dislikes swift running water. Keeps to the gentle eddies near the banks.
(He looks, away and does not refer to the screen again.)
They should never be shot for they are worse than useless for food. And they certainly do no harm. But they have many enemies besides sportsmen: snakes and frogs, muskrats, fish, and birds of prey.
He is still weeping. He attempts to regain his composure, replaces his pince-nez.)
Once I climbed an enormous pine tree to the nest of the Bald Eagle. Upon reaching it, I found it to contain only one small object: a Pied-Billed Grebe, its feathers still damp and the bloodspots on its head but half-dried.
(The single remaining bird cease its call)
It has the peculiar habit of sinking backwards in the water when confronted by a predator or a threat without leaving so much as a ripple to mark the spot where it disappeared.
(Suddenly the overheated projertor explodes noisily. The startled Lecturer junps up; the image on the screen slowly fades out, smoke pours out of the vents in the apparatus. He quickly retrieves his frock coat from the floor and fans at the smoking projerctor. While he is doing this, there is the sound of a door slamming in the wings and of approaching footsteps. The Lecturer glances in the direction of the sound, then hastily dons his frock coat.)
She's coming back! If she should ask, please tell her that the Lect-... that the "booby", that is, me,behaved with dignity.
(Pulls down his waistcoat; clears his throat; glances furtively into the wings again.)
(His eye blinks. He consults his Porketwatch.)
(Raising his voice.)
The time is up, I see.
And so, in closing, I wish to leave with the hope that you have enjoyed our little chat about the Water Birds: it would please me greatly to think that these illustrations have, in some small way, helped you see, with keener vision, the incredible richriess of Life, in Nature's Grand Design. And perhaps in some not-too-distant future, I might return to speak to you with appropriate slides about Scorpions, Spiders and Centipedes.
(Se i's interrupledby a very mucous clearing of the throat from the wings: the sound now more nearly resembles the grafitW.,,aw ~ of the Common Crow,)
That is all had to say.
One last werd in Latin,
to conclude: DIXl ET ANIMAN LEVAvl."
Or, as I like to translate it: my heart has spoken,
and thus my fettered soul has taken wing.
(He bows and walks off with great dignity into the wings from which the sound came.)
(A thin column of smoke continues to rise from the ruined projector and very faintly in the distanre the bird choir calls.)
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