IN THE BLACK, the raucous laughter of three men.
LIGHTS UP on a cramped and dim-lit tavern, where four men, in Elizabethan garb, are gathered at a rustic table that holds the pewter-plate remains of a feast of four, with empty flagons and ale-pots.A single candle lights the table, though there is ambient firelight.
In the middle seat sits KIT MARLOWE, playwright. At twenty-six, he has achieved lasting fame if only modest fortune –enough of the latter, at least, to have rich black velvet for his doublet, fine knit hose, and costly lace about his throat. Auburn locks and a pencil moustache set off his fair skin. He is pensive, if not entirely sober. He was never big on comedy. And to either side of him, sit two villains, companions of this, his final day alive. They’re enjoying themselves.
NICOLAS SKERES is an affable oversized bumpkin in patched pumpkin pants, mended worsted hose, and a shirt in need of washing. He is in need of a barber. His imposing frame suggests he’s the hired for it.
INGRAM FRIZER is both rougher and more slick, dressed in a black leather jerkin studded with metal. Hanging from his belt are a short sword and other accoutrements of a soldier-of-fortune, maintained in shiny readiness. Only his jackboots are muddy. His hair is cropped close, and he has a goatee.
There’s a violence banked in this man, waiting.
ROBERT POLEY, standing to stage left, has the appearance of more means, though a closer look reveals he’s overdressed in Cheapside tawdry, in the way of most social climbers. He’s plausible enough as a gentleman rogue, but it’s the calm exterior of a sociopath, which makes him really the most threatening of the three.
It is May, 1593. POLEY is wrapping up a joke or anecdote, as SKERES and FRIZER roar. MARLOWE’s smile seems feigned.
And Topcliffe turns that one good eye of his,
Agleam in torchlight, t’ other nastiness.
So then the Prisoner, he clears his throat –
For all the world like this was Inns of Court
Not Topcliffe’s dungeon— and he says to them,
“But if you cut my thumbs off, how will him
Would have me sign your wretched document,
Confessing all, obtain my signed consent?”
Then Master Topcliffe, the Chief Torturer,
Fixes that one eye upon the Prisoner
Proclaiming “Zounds, this lying priest speaks truth!
Well then, we’ll have to cut his willy off
So he can sign his name, and we shall have
One Papist less to Propagate the Faith!”
Marlowe smiles wanly, briefly, in what may have been a wince.
The three others laugh at this bit of ugly wit, POLEY enjoying it
in a wicked chuckle but FRIZIER cackling demonically and SKERES
guffawing like the big dim-wit that he is. After a moment, the laughter subsides.
It’s funny ‘cause it’s true.
Indeed, it is.
I heard that bit of wit myself, just as
As we were washing up.
(pointedly, to MARLOWE)
Those last small gobs
Of blood that stick in grisly jobs
Can be so hard to get off of your skin!
Reminds me of the death of Campion…
POLEY is about to launch into another story, but
SKERES is so excited that he can’t contain himself.
I got to see them draw and quarter him
At Tyburn, must be thirteen year since then.
Now I was just a lad, but still recall
The way he begged for mercy, like a… What?
SKERES searches for the simile, but POLEY cuts him off.
You’re no good with metaphor, Nick Skeres.
No, now, I got one here, for Jesu sake!
Kit Marlowe ain’t the only one can make
A pretty figure.
Nick, Just give it up—
“For Jesu sake.”
But Gram, I got it now:
“They say he wept like a penitent whore.”
“They say.” I thought you said you saw it, Skeres.
I had to leave before the final act.
You lying sack of shit!
Say that again!
SKERES stands to challenge FRIZER, who stands to confront him.
But the two are parted by MARLOWE, as he stands.
Well, lads, it’s getting late!
Kit, do sit down.
MARLOWE slowly returns to his seat, as the other two
follow him down, resuming their seats as well. POLEY
rests his weight. He’s taking time to enjoy this..
Since when has our esteemed Boy Poet here
Been known to us to keep fishmonger’s hours?
Since my advancement on the theatre boards
Has rivaled the preferment that our lords,
His Grace the most high Earl of Essex…
MARLOWE nods to FRIZER on his right.
His excellence, Sir Francis Walsingham
Acknowledging SKERES and POLEY on his left.
Are able to provide to this poor player.
I have a script in hand, requires my care.
Do you upbraid my Lord of Essex, Kit,
Or aye, Lord Walsingham?
They pay well for intelligence.
FRIZER and SKERES:
POLEY signs for the two villains to resume their seats.
Yet they do waste a young man’s promise.
It’s not the work that would immortalize
A man, or even bring him some renown.
My life remains unsung, my deeds unknown.
The silver that they pay is tarnished gray,
My promise hid by time’s incessant dust.
MARLOWE pulls forth from his person a manuscript.
So, promise-crammed, show forth I must
What I possess the most of: That great skill
That has been granted me, to take a quill,
Some walnut ink, this piece of parchment here…
You use that walnut ink, then?
Shut up, Skeres!
Withal, the product of my teeming brain,
To make a play to outdo Tamurlaine,
The Jew Of Malta, Doctor Faustus or
The Massacre at Paris and, what’s more,
To outdo every poet yet unborn,
So all the world shall look on him with scorn
Who dares to challenge he who, I do trow,
Will live in fame forever: Kit Marlowe.
I thought Tamurlaine Two a little thin.
POLEY ignores SKERES, focusing on MARLOWE.
Intelligence is out of fashion, then?
I hope not on the stage, but I suspect
The kind you mean is overrated fact.
Too much of it is on the market, chum.
Lord Burghley, Essex, Walsingham,
The Percy faction, Raleigh and his crew.
All buying what you sell. Who needs the news
That poor Kit Marlowe used to fetch –From Rhiems,
From Doaui, from the ports of Amsterdam
Or Vleshingen, from privy chapels or
From fleshpot brothels— unless it be for
A higher purpose than to hang our enemies
–The Catholics, the atheists, whoe’er they be?
What “Higher Purpose” would you serve, man,
If not the most high rulers of our land?
I’d serve my art, Bob Poley, serve my craft.
You find that funny? Well, go on then, laugh.
I want to put all that, all that I know
Into a single play, designed to show
The shadow world of we whom great men call
To do those dark and dirty tasks Whitehall
Cannot admit to.
No, indeed they can’t.
No more than you can put this rot you rant
Into a five-act drama.
But I’ve done so.
Advanced five hundred quid from Henslowe.
Ned Allyn’s playing me, the Curtain’s booked,
Rehearsals start next week.
Well, I’ll be fucked!
Five hundred quid! They pay you that for naught
But jabbering about yourself all night?
What, for this here? For this here piece of scrap?
FRIZER grabs at the manuscript, but MARLOWE dodges.
“This piece of…” Ah, the sad, phlegmatic chap
Who sees only the paper, not the play,
Commodity.The coin, not what it buys.
Not only will this foolscap pay me well –
Nay, handsomely!— but one day this play shall
Become the very Touchstone of our age,
Not only reckoned great by our most sage
Observers, but by all the literati
Of centuries to come.
Lord but you’re greedy.
I said “You’re greedy.” Oh, what greed!
Now that he’s spoken his thought, POLEY gives it full vent.
They say that I do sometimes overreach.
But you… You, Marlowe, take the prize for each
Of several varieties of avarice,
You do. You want it all, not only this,
That, here and now, but every bit of it,
And everlasting, too. You just won’t quit
While you’re ahead, is what your problem is.
You take the silver that your betters pay,
Though you pretend you don’t. I wouldn’t say
That makes you worse than any other blokes
In spy-work, or in theatre. But the joke
Is that you think you’re better than we are.
In that way, you’re the greediest by far.
You cast yourself as Magus, Alchemist,
Magician, Faust, who makes gold out of dross.
Takes all the dreadful things he’s seen and heard,
Then writes it up, just puts it into words.
Words that shill earn him everlasting fame.
POLEY laughs oddly, and resumes his former manner,
the pose of banked, wry humor, his old familiar mask.
And no one even knows my name.
I’ll die with just the silver in my poke.
Bob Poley, just another nameless bloke
Who’ll be forgotten e’re he’s in his grave,
His place in life filled by some other knave.
But greedy, greedy Marlowe will live on,
His purse now ripe to bursting, and anon
Another debut on a London stage.
His poetry the greatest of the age
We live in, or indeed throughout all time.
Well, what’s yours is yours, Kit, and what’s mine is mine.
Ah, it has been a privilege to dine
With you, I must say, and because you shan’t
Be our associate –as you recant
The only faith you ever had in life—
We’ll have to bear the dull-edged knife
That severs our connection. Well. Farewell.
POLEY signals FRIZER and SKERES, who stand.
POLEY makes as if to leave, and his companions
take a step back from the table. Then POLEY stops,
and turns to address MARLOWE for the last time.
Oh yeah! We’ll just need ten quid for the meal.
Not knowing what else to do with this, MARLOWE laughs.
It’s not a comedy, Kit. This is real.
You have to pay the reckoning.
Someone must pay for our little party here.
The cost of Frizer’s wine, an ale for Skeres
–Perhaps for my tobacco, that’d be nice.
It’s quite a lot, but ten quid should suffice.
MARLOWE laughs again, and shrugs.
I didn’t bring the money with me, boys.
Regardless, Kit, you’ll be the one who pays.
On a signal from POLEY, SKERES grabs MARLOWE
from behind, and clasps a hand over his mouth
as FRIZER draws his dagger and steps in front of
MARLOWE for the kill. A muffled scream from
the poet is his last word on earth, terminating
suddenly as a spurt of blood hits FRIZER’s face.
Perhaps we see MARLOWE’s face, one eye-socket
covered in blood, as SKERES lets him to the ground.
Certainly we see SKERE’s face, grieved by this.
Quick, search the corpse.
They do so, FRIZER quickly dividing the silver coin they find in a bag. SKERES picks up the manuscript, and POLEY examines the bill.
A hundred for you, Nick.
You, Frizer, you take two. And I get stuck
With paying out the reckoning from mine.
Just one ale, Nick? Gram, easy on the wine
Next time. This really is a ten quid bill!
I’ll make it twelve.
So the Tapster tell
The proper story to the magistrate.
POLEY assumes the role of witness at an inquest.
“There was some question on the going rate
For fresh fish from the filthy River Thames,
And Marlowe drew on Frizer, called him names
No honest man could bear to hear. A fight
Ensued, and –Goodness, such a dreadful fright
He gave poor Gram. Before we knew it, Kit
“‘Twas self defense, it was.”
At POLEY’s direction, FRIZER doffs his cap and
portrays the guileless, contrite witness at
the coming Coroner’s Inquest.
“A raving maniac, Kit lunged for me.”
He takes his dagger and nicks his head with it.
“He gave me this, as you can plainly see.”
He bows curt but respectful. His testimony done, he is excused.
“Aye. Aye, Your Worship, that’s the way it went.”
POLEY applauds FRIZER, who allows himself a theatrical bow.
“The Tragedy of Young Kit Marlowe, Gent.
As lately played at Deptford Tavern here,
By Several Players of the Secret Theatre,
Anon (with some Revision) as before
Her Majesty’s attending Coroner.”
FRIZER and POLEY share a chuckle at this piece of theatre.
SKERES has been reading MARLOWE’s bloody manuscript.
Gaw’ Blimey! This is good!
I’ll take that, Nick!
Oh, leave me keep it, Bob.
Don’t make me make
Our Ingram kill you, too. Now hand it here.
Don’t think that I won’t kill you, too, Nick Skeres.
I’ll give my share for it. A hundred quid.
Marlowe’s last play, you’ll pay a hundred bob?
Nay, lads, his worth was five time that.
POLEY lights the manuscript on the candle.
After a moment, he lights his pipe with it.
puffs smoke meditatively, drops the paper
and steps on it. FRIZER laughs, SKERES weeps,
Music of hautboys or perhaps a lute as
the LIGHTS FADE on this TABLEAUX.
END OF PLAY.