The Thing Happens: A.D. 2170/Act I, § i
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Act I, § i
|Act I, § ii|The Thing Happens: Act I, § ii→|
- A summer afternoon in the year 2170 A.D. The official parlor of the President of the British Islands. A board table, long enough for three chairs at each side besides the presidential chair at the head and an ordinary chair at the foot, occupies the breadth of the room. On the table, opposite every chair, a small switchboard with a dial. There is no fireplace. The end wall is a silvery screen nearly as large as a pair of folding doors. The door is on your left as you face the screen; and there is a row of thick pegs, padded and covered with velvet, beside it.
- A stoutish middle-aged man, good-looking and breezily genial, dressed in a silk smock, stockings, handsomely ornamented sandals, and a gold fillet round his brows, comes in. He is like Joyce Burge, yet also like Lubin, as if Nature had made a composite photograph of the two men. He takes off the fillet and hangs it on a peg; then sits down in the presidential chair at the head of the table, which is at the end farthest from the door. He puts a peg into his switchboard; turns the pointer on the dial; puts another peg in; and presses a button. Immediately the silvery screen vanishes; and in its place appears, in reverse from right to left, another office similarly furnished, with a thin, unamiable man similarly dressed, but in duller colors, turning over some documents at the table. His gold fillet is hanging up on a similar peg beside the door. He is rather like Conrad Barnabas, but younger, and much more commonplace.
BURGE-LUBIN. Hallo, Barnabas!
BARNABAS [without looking round] What number?
BURGE-LUBIN. Five double x three two gamma. Burge-Lubin.
- Barnabas puts a plug in number five; turns his pointer to double x; and another plug in 32; presses a button and looks round at Burge-Lubin, who is now visible to him as well as audible.
BARNABAS [curtly] Oh! That you, President?
BURGE-LUBIN. Yes. They told me you wanted me to ring you up. Anything wrong?
BARNABAS [harsh and querulous] I wish to make a protest.
BURGE-LUBIN [good-humored and mocking] What! Another protest! Whats wrong now?
BARNABAS. If you only knew all the protests I havnt made, you would be surprised at my patience. It is you who are always treating me with the grossest want of consideration.
BURGE-LUBIN. What have I done now?
BARNABAS. You have put me down to go to the Record Office today to receive that American fellow, and do the honors of a ridiculous cinema show. That is not the business of the Accountant General: it is the business of the President. It is an outrageous waste of my time, and an unjustifiable shirking of your duty at my expense. I refuse to go. You must go.
BURGE-LUBIN. My dear boy, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to take the job off your hands—
BARNABAS. Then do it. Thats all I want [he is about to switch off].
BURGE-LUBIN. Dont switch off. Listen. This American has invented a method of breathing under water.
BARNABAS. What do I care? I don't want to breathe under water.
BURGE-LUBIN. You may, my dear Barnabas, at any time. You know you never look where you are going when you are immersed in your calculations. Some day you will walk into the Serpentine. This man's invention may save your life.
BARNABAS [angrily] Will you tell me what that has to do with your putting your ceremonial duties on to my shoulders? I will not be trifled [he vanishes and is replaced by the blank screen]—
BURGE-LUBIN [indignantly holding down his button] Dont cut us off, please: we have not finished. I am the President, speaking to the Accountant General. What are you dreaming of?
A WOMAN'S VOICE. Sorry. [The screen shews Barnabas as before].
BURGE-LUBIN. Since you take it that way, I will go in your place. It's a pity, because, you see, this American thinks you are the greatest living authority on the duration of human life; and—
BARNABAS [interrupting] The American thinks! What do you mean? I am the greatest living authority on the duration of human life. Who dares dispute it?
BURGE-LUBIN. Nobody, dear lad, nobody. Dont fly out at me. It is evident that you have not read the American's book.
BARNABAS. Dont tell me that you have, or that you have read any book except a novel for the last twenty years; for I wont believe you.
BURGE-LUBIN. Quite right, dear old fellow: I havnt read it. But I have read what The Times Literary Supplement says about it.
BARNABAS. I don't care two straws what it says about it. Does it say anything about me?
BARNABAS. Oh, does it? What?
BURGE-LUBIN. It points out that an extraordinary number of first-rate persons like you and me have died by drowning during the last two centuries, and that when this invention of breathing under water takes effect, your estimate of the average duration of human life will be upset.
BARNABAS [alarmed] Upset my estimate! Gracious Heavens! Does the fool realize what that means? Do you realize what that means?
BURGE-LUBIN. I suppose it means that we shall have to amend the Act.
BARNABAS. Amend my Act! Monstrous!
BURGE-LUBIN. But we must. We cant ask people to go on working until they are forty-three unless our figures are unchallengeable. You know what a row there was over those last three years, and how nearly the too-old-at-forty people won.
BARNABAS. They would have made the British Islands bankrupt if theyd won. But you dont care for that; you care for nothing but being popular.
BURGE-LUBIN. Oh, well: I shouldn't worry if I were you; for most people complain that there is not enough work for them, and would be only too glad to stick on instead of retiring at forty-three, if only they were asked as a favor instead of having to.
BARNABAS. Thank you: I need no consolation. [He rises determinedly and puts on his fillet].
BURGE-LUBIN. Are you off? Where are you going to?
BARNABAS. To that cinema tomfoolery, of course. I shall put this American impostor in his place. [He goes out].
BURGE-LUBIN [calling after him] God bless you, dear old chap! [With a chuckle, he switches off; and the screen becomes blank. He presses a button and holds it down while he calls] Hallo!
A WOMAN'S VOICE. Hallo!
BURGE-LUBIN [formally] The President respectfully solicits the privilege of an interview with the Chief Secretary, and holds himself entirely at his honor's august disposal.
A CHINESE VOICE. He is coming.
BURGE-LUBIN. Oh! That you, Confucius? So good of you. Come along. [He releases the button.]
A man in a yellow gown, presenting the general appearance of a Chinese sage, enters.
BURGE-LUBIN [jocularly] Well, illustrious Sage-&-Onions, how are your poor sore feet?
CONFUCIUS [gravely] I thank you for your kind inquiries. I am well.
BURGE-LUBIN. Thats right. Sit down and make yourself comfortable. Any business for me today?
CONFUCIUS [sitting down on the first chair round the corner of the table to the President's right] None.
BURGE-LUBIN. Have you heard the result of the bye-election?
CONFUCIUS. A walk-over. Only one candidate.
BURGE-LUBIN. Any good?
CONFUCIUS. He was released from the County Lunatic Asylum a fortnight ago. Not mad enough for the lethal chamber: not sane enough for any place but the division lobby. A very popular speaker.
BURGE-LUBIN. I wish the people would take a serious interest in politics.
CONFUCIUS. I do not agree. The Englishman is not fitted by nature to understand politics. Ever since the public services have been manned by Chinese, the country has been well and honestly governed. What more is needed?
BURGE-LUBIN. What I cant make out is that China is one of the worst governed countries on earth.
CONFUCIUS. No. It was badly governed twenty years ago; but since we forbade any Chinaman to take part in our public services, and imported natives of Scotland for that purpose, we have done well. Your information here is always twenty years out of date.
BURGE-LUBIN. People don't seem to be able to govern themselves. I cant understand it. Why should it be so?
CONFUCIUS. Justice is impartiality. Only strangers are impartial.
BURGE-LUBIN. It ends in the public services being so good that the Government has nothing to do but think.
CONFUCIUS. Were it otherwise, the Government would have too much to do to think.
BURGE-LUBIN. Is that any excuse for the English people electing a parliament of lunatics?
CONFUCIUS. The English people always did elect parliaments of lunatics. What does it matter if your permanent officials are honest and competent?
BURGE-LUBIN. You do not know the history of this country. What would my ancestors have said to the menagerie of degenerates that is still called the House of Commons? Confucius: you will not believe me; and I do not blame you for it; but England once saved the liberties of the world by inventing parliamentary government, which was her peculiar and supreme glory.
CONFUCIUS. I know the history of your country perfectly well. It proves the exact contrary.
BURGE-LUBIN. How do you make that out?
CONFUCIUS. The only power your parliament ever had was the power of withholding supplies from the king.
BURGE-LUBIN. Precisely. That great Englishman Simon de Montfort—
CONFUCIUS. He was not an Englishman: he was a Frenchman. He imported parliaments from France.
BURGE-LUBIN [surprised] You dont say so!
CONFUCIUS. The king and his loyal subjects killed Simon for forcing his French parliament on them. The first thing British parliaments always did was to grant supplies to the king for life with enthusiastic expressions of loyalty, lest they should have any real power, and be expected to do something.
BURGE-LUBIN. Look here, Confucius: you know more history than I do, of course; but democracy—
CONFUCIUS. An institution peculiar to China. And it was never really a success there.
BURGE-LUBIN. But the Habeas Corpus Act!
CONFUCIUS. The English always suspended it when it threatened to be of the slightest use.
BURGE-LUBIN. Well, trial by jury: you cant deny that we established that?
CONFUCIUS. All cases that were dangerous to the governing classes were tried in the Star Chamber or by Court Martial, except when the prisoner was not tried at all, but executed after calling him names enough to make him unpopular.
BURGE-LUBIN. Oh, bother! You may be right in these little details; but in the large we have managed to hold our own as a great race. Well, people who could do nothing couldnt have done that, you know.
CONFUCIUS. I did not say you could do nothing. You could fight. You could eat. You could drink. Until the twentieth century you could produce children. You could play games. You could work when you were forced to. But you could not govern yourselves.
BURGE-LUBIN. Then how did we get our reputation as the pioneers of liberty?
CONFUCIUS. By your steadfast refusal to be governed at all. A horse that kicks everyone who tries to harness and guide him may be a pioneer of liberty; but he is not a pioneer of government. In China he would be shot.
BURGE-LUBIN. Stuff! Do you imply that the administration of which I am president is no Government?
CONFUCIUS. I do. I am the Government.
BURGE-LUBIN. You! You!! You fat yellow lump of conceit!
CONFUCIUS. Only an Englishman could be so ignorant of the nature of government as to suppose that a capable statesman cannot be fat, yellow, and conceited. Many Englishmen are slim, red-nosed, and modest. Put them in my place, and within a year you will be back in the anarchy and chaos of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
BURGE-LUBIN. Oh, if you go back to the dark ages, I have nothing more to say. But we did not perish. We extricated ourselves from that chaos. We are now the best governed country in the world. How did we manage that if we are such fools as you pretend?
CONFUCIUS. You did not do it until the slaughter and ruin produced by your anarchy forced you at last to recognize two inexorable facts. First, that government is absolutely necessary to civilization, and that you could not maintain civilization by merely doing down your neighbor, as you called it, and cutting off the head of your king whenever he happened to be a logical Scot and tried to take his position seriously. Second, that government is an art of which you are congenitally incapable. Accordingly, you imported educated negresses and Chinese to govern you. Since then you have done very well.
BURGE-LUBIN. So have you, you old humbug. All the same, I don't know how you stand the work you do. You seem to me positively to like public business. Why wont you let me take you down to the coast some week-end and teach you marine golf?
CONFUCIUS. It does not interest me. I am not a barbarian.
BURGE-LUBIN. You mean that I am?
CONFUCIUS. That is evident.
CONFUCIUS. People like you. They like cheerful goodnatured barbarians. They have elected you President five times in succession. They will elect you five times more. I like you. You are better company than a dog or a horse because you can speak.
BURGE-LUBIN. Am I a barbarian because you like me?
CONFUCIUS. Surely. Nobody likes me: I am held in awe. Capable persons are never liked. I am not likeable; but I am indispensable.
BURGE-LUBIN. Oh, cheer up, old man: theres nothing so disagreeable about you as all that. I don't dislike you; and if you think I'm afraid of you, you jolly well don't know Burge-Lubin: thats all.
CONFUCIUS. You are brave: yes. It is a form of stupidity.
BURGE-LUBIN. You may not be brave: one doesn't expect it from a Chink. But you have the devil's own cheek.
CONFUCIUS. I have the assured certainty of the man who sees and knows. Your genial bluster, your cheery self-confidence, are pleasant, like the open air. But they are blind: they are vain. I seem to see a great dog wag his tail and bark joyously. But if he leaves my heel he is lost.
BURGE-LUBIN. Thank you for a handsome compliment. I have a big dog; and he is the best fellow I know. If you knew how much uglier you are than a chow, you wouldn't start those comparisons, though. [Rising] Well, if you have nothing for me to do, I am going to leave your heel for the rest of the day and enjoy myself. What would you recommend me to do with myself?
CONFUCIUS. Give yourself up to contemplation; and great thoughts will come to you.
BURGE-LUBIN. Will they? If you think I am going to sit here on a fine day like this with my legs crossed waiting for great thoughts, you exaggerate my taste for them. I prefer marine golf. [Stopping short] Oh, by the way, I forgot something. I have a word or two to say to the Minister of health. [He goes back to his chair].
CONFUCIUS. Her number is—
BURGE-LUBIN. I know it.
CONFUCIUS [rising] I cannot understand her attraction for you. For me a woman who is not yellow does not exist, save as an official. [He goes out].
- Burge-Lubin operates his switchboard as before. The screen vanishes: and a dainty room with a bed, a wardrobe, and a dressing-table with a mirror and a switch on it, appears. Seated at it a handsome negress is trying on a brilliant head scarf. Her dressing-gown is thrown back from her shoulders to her chair. She is in corset, knickers, and silk stockings.
BURGE-LUBIN [horrified] I beg your pardon a thousand times— [The startled negress snatches the peg out of her switchboard and vanishes].
THE NEGRESS'S VOICE. Who is it?
BURGE-LUBIN. Me. The President. Burge-Lubin. I had no idea your bedroom switch was in. I beg your pardon.
- The negress reappears. She has pulled the dressing-gown perfunctorily over her shoulders, and continues her experiments with the scarf, not at all put out, and rather amused by Burge's prudery.
THE NEGRESS. Stupid of me. I was talking to another lady this morning; and I left the peg in.
BURGE-LUBIN. But I am so sorry.
THE NEGRESS [sunnily: still busy with the scarf] Why? It was my fault.
BURGE-LUBIN [embarrassed] Well—er—But I suppose you were used to it in Africa.
THE NEGRESS. Your delicacy is very touching, Mr President. It would be funny if it were not so unpleasant, because, like all white delicacy, it is in the wrong place. How do you think this suits my complexion?
BURGE-LUBIN. How can any really vivid color go wrong with a black satin skin? It is our women's wretched pale faces that have to be matched and lighted. Yours is always right.
THE NEGRESS. Yes: it is a pity your white beauties have all the same ashy faces, the same colorless drab, the same age. But look at their beautiful noses and little lips! They are physically insipid: they have no beauty: you cannot love them; but how elegant!
BURGE-LUBIN. Cant you find an official pretext for coming to see me? Isnt it ridiculous that we have never met? It's so tantalizing to see you and talk to you, and to know all the time that you are two hundred miles away, and that I cant touch you?
THE NEGRESS. I cannot live on the East Coast: it is hard enough to keep my blood warm here. Besides, my friend, it would not be safe. These distant flirtations are very charming; and they teach self-control.
BURGE-LUBIN. Damn self-control! I want to hold you in my arms—to— [The negress snatches out the peg from the switchboard and vanishes. She is still heard laughing.] Black devil! [He snatches out his peg furiously: her laugh is no longer heard]. Oh, these sex episodes! Why can I not resist them? Disgraceful!
- Confucius returns.
CONFUCIUS. I forgot. There is something for you to do this morning. You have to go to the Record Office to receive the American barbarian.
BURGE-LUBIN. Confucius: once for all, I object to this Chinese habit of describing white men as barbarians.
CONFUCIUS [standing formally at the end of the table with his hands palm to palm] I make a mental note that you do not wish the Americans to be described as barbarians.
BURGE-LUBIN. Not at all. The Americans are barbarians. But we are not. I suppose the particular barbarian you are speaking of is the American who has invented a means of breathing under water.
CONFUCIUS. He says he has invented such a method. For some reason which is not intelligible in China, Englishmen always believe any statement made by an American inventor, especially one who has never invented anything. Therefore you believe this person and have given him a public reception. Today the Record Office is entertaining him with a display of the cinematographic records of all the eminent Englishmen who have lost their lives by drowning since the cinema was invented. Why not go to see it if you are at a loss for something to do?
BURGE-LUBIN. What earthly interest is there in looking at a moving picture of a lot of people merely because they were drowned? If they had had any sense, they would not have been drowned, probably.
CONFUCIUS. That is not so. It has never been noticed before; but the Record Office has just made two remarkable discoveries about the public men and women who have displayed extraordinary ability during the past century. One is that they retained unusual youthfulness up to an advanced age. The other is that they all met their death by drowning.
BURGE-LUBIN. Yes: I know. Can you explain it?
CONFUCIUS. It cannot be explained. It is not reasonable. Therefore I do not believe it.
- The Accountant General rushes in, looking ghastly. He staggers to the middle of the table.
BURGE-LUBIN. Whats the matter? Are you ill?
BARNABAS [choking] No. I—[he collapses into the middle chair]. I must speak to you in private.
- Confucius calmly withdraws.
BURGE-LUBIN. What on earth is it? Have some oxygen.
BARNABAS. I have had some. Go to the Record Office. You will see men fainting there again and again, and being revived with oxygen, as I have been. They have seen with their own eyes as I have.
BURGE-LUBIN. Seen what?