Vigil - A Play
The Death (or Life) of Alice James
By Arielle Seidman
April 29, 2010
House of Wits
Cast of Characters
ALICE – A dying diarist, who has spent most of her life in bed.
HENRY – Her brother, an unmarried novelist.
WILLIAM – Their brother, a conflicted philosopher, and teacher.
It’s another depressing piece. I apologize. Next time, I’ll give you an example of my comedic writing. That stuff is much better.
[The lights are all dimmed in ALICE’s small bedroom. ALICE herself is lying in bed propped on cushions so that her face is turned to the audience. She is reading and writing in a book, which she holds feebly on her lap.
HENRY is on a chair by ALICE’s bed, also writing feverishly on a piece of paper. He looks up sharply at ALICE every now and then. WILLIAM is pacing back and forth on the other side of the room. ALICE speaks at first without looking up.]
ALICE: Whatever are you doing, Harry?
HENRY: Immortalizing you.
ALICE: (amusement creeping into her voice) And why would I want to be immortal?
HENRY: I didn’t say you wanted it.
ALICE: I suppose that you do, then. No greater happiness can come than finding we survive, or can be revived in a few memories. Are you making a memory of me?
HENRY: (reading from what he is writing) “She sat with great intensity, giving the whole of her mind to it, and was capable of remaining for an hour almost as motionless as if she were before a photographer's lens.” A portrait of the lady Alice, the stoic woman who never-!
HENRY: (surprised) No?
ALICE: (decisively) No. It’s trite.
HENRY: It’s profound.
ALICE: ‘Tis wonderful how easy it is to be profound.
HENRY: You’re making fun of me.
ALICE: Am I?
HENRY: Yes, it’s encouraging. It’s buoyant. You’re in good spirits.
ALICE: Perhaps I’m just humoring you.
HERNY: (with a smile) And your touching patience was the measure of their great need.
ALICE: Need of what, pray? Prescribe for me, Harry. What do I need?
WILLIAM: Options. Choices. Something to live forward to.
ALICE: That’s a miserable grammatical construction, Will.
WILLIAM: It hardly seems worth living if your only option is death.
HENRY: (uncertainly) A sound statement.
ALICE: Devoid of meaning.
WILLIAM: Does it not seem preposterous on the very face of it to talk of our opinions being modifiable at will?
WILLIAM: Can we, by any effort of our will, or by any strength of wish that it were true, believe ourselves well and about when we are roaring with rheumatism in bed?
HENRY: (warningly) William…
WILLIAM: Perhaps we can.
HENRY: This is hardly the time.
WILLIAM: (grimly) There will never be another time.
HENRY: I’m sure she appreciates-
[ALICE lets out a burst of derisive laughter, which quickly evolves into legitimate, innocent mirth. HENRY and WILLIAM stare at her, obviously concerned that her condition is worsening. After wiping her eyes and regaining her composure, ALICE speaks.]
ALICE: Life is simply a huge joke?
WILLIAM: How are you feeling?
ALICE: Wonderful. Marvelous. Shall I never have any convulsive laughs again? Ah, me, I fear not. I had such a feast for 34 years that I can’t complain.
WILLIAM: What is so funny?
ALICE: You are.
WILLIAM: I see.
ALICE: I doubt that.
WILLIAM: That’s your choice. I suppose there’s something to be said for seeing the world as full of hilarity…even when you treat those who have only your best interests at heart-
ALICE: (cutting him off) Tell me about my best interests.
ALICE: Since you know them so much better than I do.
WILLIAM: That’s impossible. I could never know you better than you know yourself. Your decisions are necessarily the rights for you, in a way that mine could never be right for anyone but myself.
ALICE: (sneeringly) Evasion.
WILLIAM: (shrug) If you like.
HENRY: Alice, William, please.
[HENRY looks legitimately pained by their argument, and so ALICE and WILLIAM attempt to recall themselves into some sort of friendly order. WILLIAM returns to his pacing, and ALICE puts down her diary and sighs.]
HENRY: What are you working on?
ALICE: I’m writing in my diary.
WILLIAM: (turning eagerly) But if you don’t want to be immortalized, then why-?
ALICE: (cutting him off demurely) For my own pleasure and amusement, no one else’s.
HENRY: Then you won’t read it to us?
ALICE: No, you mightn’t like it.
HENRY: So you right about us, then?
ALICE: I write about everything that comes into my meager sphere, and you, Harry, are a more prominent part of that sphere than most. (She eyes WILLIAM reproachfully, but WILLIAM appears not to have noticed.]
HENRY: And it amuses you to write for yourself?
ALICE: I thought that if I got into the habit of writing about what happens, or what doesn’t happen, I would lose a little of the sense of loneliness and desolation which abides with me. (a bit maliciously) William, you’re a philosopher.
ALICE: And a learned man, a teacher.
WILLIAM: I suppose I am.
ALICE: Then tell me, brother. What is loneliness?
WILLIAM: (uncertainly) It seems as though our passional nature lies at the root of all of our convictions.
ALICE: I hardly think that loneliness can be considered either a passion or a conviction. It’s more of a dull throb.
WILLIAM: Shall we treat it as a weakness of our nature from which we must free ourselves, if we can?
ALICE: Well, I assume that you will, at least.
WILLIAM: (with a resigned shrug) Loneliness is like anything else we feel or experience. We can cave to it, and allow it, bemoaning it without really rejecting it. Alternatively, we could fight it.
ALICE: And how do I fight my loneliness?
WILLIAM: You might start by getting out of bed. You’re more likely to encounter people that way, and if you’re so lonely…
ALICE: I knew you’d say that.
WILLIAM: I’m sure you did. Tell me, then. What is loneliness?
ALICE: Me? I’m no learned woman.
WILLIAM: It is your experience.
ALICE: Very well. My soul will never stretch itself to allowing that it is anything else but a cruel and unnatural fate for a woman to live alone, to have no one to care and “do for” daily is not only a sorrow, but a sterilizing process. There, that’s what loneliness is. It stagnates one and turns one into useless human mush. So we do agree on one point, William, I am useless.
WILLIAM: (quietly) I do not believe that you are useless, Alice. Far from it.
HENRY: Oh, what does it matter? Really, the two of you never stop.
ALICE: Yes, quite, what does it matter? After all, I’m going to die.
[Dead silence. HENRY and WILLIAM are obviously feeling awkward.]
ALICE: Sorry, was I too blunt? Are we going to skirt the subject all evening? If we do, we’ll miss our opportunity entirely.
HENRY: What opportunity?
ALICE: Your very last opportunity to say to me all of the things that you have always wanted to say. Any resentment should come out now.
WILLIAM: I’m sorry.
ALICE: Is that it?
WILLIAM: I’m sorry you feel that what I’ve said to you comes out of resentment.
HENRY: Alice would like us to take advantage of that “comfortable candour” which now prevails between us.
ALICE: Are you being sarcastic?
HENRY: This just doesn’t seem like the time to beat at old wounds. If it’s our last…
ALICE: But I thought I was being immortalized, Harry. You were going to immortalize me.
[Silence in the room for a few moments. HENRY goes back to writing.]
HENRY: (reading) she seems to me to have pervaded my life not a little. I have a vision of her as-
WILLIAM: (abruptly) And where will you go?
WILLIAM: When you leave us, where will you go?
ALICE: To heaven or hell, you mean? (she laughs) I suppose we never really know.
WILLIAM: You know. ALICE: To hell, then.
ALICE: And why not?
HENRY: (smiling) You’d never tolerate it. You’re too used to luxury, dear sister.
WILLIAM: You wouldn’t have said that.
ALICE: Wouldn’t have…what?
WILLIAM: You wouldn’t have said that if you really believed in God. You don’t believe in God, Alice.
ALICE: My beliefs are my business.
HENRY: (alarmed) Don’t you, Alice? Believe in God, I mean?
WILLIAM: Why would she?
[HENRY and ALICE both stare incredulously at him. WILLIAM, obviously feeling a bit awkward, continues doggedly.]
WILLIAM: What value is there, to Alice, is there in believing in God? All her life, she has wished to die. Isn’t that a sin?
WILLIAM: Hear me out. If to wish to end your life is a sin, then Alice could get only torment and guilt from believing in God. Weigh what your gains and your losses would be if you should stake all you have on heads, or God's existence. For Alice, there are no gains…and so she stakes nothing. It’s infinitely reasonable.
HENRY: It’s absurd and vile.
WILLIAM: Hardly. And for that matter…what has God done for Alice in life that would encourage her to believe in him in death?
[That statement is obviously very affecting to ALICE, who looks surprised and somewhat touched by WILLIAM’s consideration of that point. She looks at HENRY, who is scowling and obviously displeased with the direction the conversation as taken. After sharing a long glance with WILIAM, she changes the topic.]
ALICE: Like everyone else, God probably lost patience with me quite some time ago.
HENRY: What a thing to say…
WILLIAM: What makes you think that?
ALICE: I complain too much to appreciate the beauty of his creation. I’m unappreciative. Even if I did believe in him, he’s unlikely to still believe in me.
WILLIAM: I believe in you. You’re very appreciative, you’re observant. You could go a long way.
ALICE: There’s no time.
WILLIAM: You could write for a living, like Henry.
ALICE: There’s no time.
WILLIAM: You could be an artist of words.
ALICE: (shaking her head) Imagine the joy and the despair of it! The joy of seeing with the trained eye, and the despair of doing it. My expression would prove impotent to express.
HENRY: This very attitude and expression makes a picture.
HENRY: That very expression. The expression about your lack of ability to express. It was poetic. You have the gift.
ALICE: (shaking her head) There’s no time. You’ll have to do it for me.
HENRY: I thought you didn’t want to be immortalized.
ALICE: (shrug) Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. It won’t much matter anyway. Besides, you’ll be so much sweeter to me in prose than I’ve deserved. Your poetic nature, I suppose.
[HENRY and WILLIAM are sitting in ALICE’s bedroom, several days later. ALICE has died. There is a somber air in the room, and both of the men are wearing black.]
HENRY: it came over me that she had made a great effort for me--made it with a kind of nobleness--and that I owed her a compensation.
WILLIAM: What’s that?
HENRY: It’s a line from my-!
WILLIAM: Nevermind, I know what it is. It’s a line from “The Real Thing.”
HENRY: I never knew that you read my work.
WILLIAM: Every word. And you’re right.
HENRY: Am I?
WILLIAM: She did make a great effort. I do wonder who she made it for.
HENRY: Alice? Yes.
WILLIAM: Isn’t that what you meant, when you quoted-
HENRY: Yes, it is. I did. She did. I’m having trouble talking about her in the past tense.
WILLIAM: All your writing is the past tense.
HENRY: All my writing is purely fictional. This moment is alarmingly real.
WILLIAM: What’s the use of any of it, if it’s purely fictional?
HENRY: Amusement, I suppose. It gives pleasure.
WILLIAM: To whom?
HENRY: To my readers, I hope.
WILLIAM: And to you?
HENRY: And to me.
WILLIAM: Well, that’s all right, then.
HENRY: I suppose you didn’t enjoy them, then.
HENRY: My books.
WILLIAM: I did.
HENRY: Then why would you argue that they’re meaningless?
WILLIAM: I didn’t. I mean, I don’t. I just wanted to know what they meant to you.
HENRY: The same thing that Alice’s diary meant to her.
WILLIAM: The past tense again.
WILLIAM: What is death?
WILLIAM: Really, though, what is it? Is it the same thing for you that it is for me?
HENRY: I asked you, don’t.
WILLIAM: Alternatively, what is immortality?
HENRY: Dear lord.
WILLIAM: As a rule we disbelieve all facts and theories for which we have no use. I have no use for the idea of death.
HENRY: I would say we have a use for it. We wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation if we didn’t have a use for it.
WILLIAM: It provides me with nothing to believe it death. It’s much more pragmatic to believe in life…or the lack of death, the inability to experience death. I can stomach that. I can fathom that.
HENRY: You mean you’d prefer not to think about the end.
WILLIAM: My head’s in the sand.
HENRY: Your head is in your ass.
WILLIAM: Either way, I’m ducking out. A subconscious but nonetheless vital desire not to believe.
HENRY: Suck it up.
WILLIAM: Evidently, then, our non-intellectual nature does influence our convictions. It’s desire, not fact that promotes this idea that there cannot be such a thing as death, really.
HENRY: All of this speculation does you none of the good that visiting her while she was alive would have done.
WILLIAM: I think I believe that too.
HENRY: Why? It only inspires guilt, and heaven knows you don’t want that.
WILLIAM: No, but I’m experiencing it. I need a reason to be experiencing it…and this one seems better than any other.
HENRY: Ah. I see.
HENRY: I’m…er, I’m sorry. I suppose that was a cruel thing of me to-
WILLIAM: Never mind.
WILLIAM: I do like your books.
HENRY: Thank you.
I accept that the scene displayed above doesn’t have very much of a coherent plot. The purpose of this project was to create a scene between the three James siblings (Alice, Henry, William) which displayed their differing opinions and viewpoints, and how said opinions and viewpoints would effectively relate to one another. Obviously such a conversation did not really occur, and the scene is entirely fictional. Alice died in the company of Katherine Loring, and without her two brothers. It is possible that she never had any discourse on the subject of religion with either of them, and several of the character nuances in the above scene are entirely made up for the sake of entertainment. I did use several quotations from each of the James siblings in the dialogue in the above scene. Alice speaks several times from the pages of her diary, while Henry uses phrases from “The Real Thing,” and William philosophizes out of his lecture on “The Will to Believe.”
I was interested in exploring the possibilities inherent in the relationships between the siblings. We rarely explored those relationships in class, and I was curious to see what would happen if I stuck them all in a room together and gave them a moment around which to focus their attention. Fixated on death as Alice James was, her death easily became the focus of the piece, allowing William to discuss religion, and Alice to discuss the nature of her life and illness. Henry speaks mostly in prose from his short stories, as his lifestyle consisted very much of being a popular fiction writer. It is interesting how, out of context, several sentiments expressed in his short stories can be seen to reflect upon the rest of his world and life….I may, however, be totally overstepping the boundaries of historical fiction in quoting him out of context.