The last three “stanzas” of this play are borrowed from King Lear, Act III, Scene 7. Augustine and Shakespeare share a sensibility that I will clumsily summarize as Protestant: the Kingdom of God is here and now, not in some distant afterlife. I must say that writing in this format has been educational. Some friends will recognize that the play is a gloss on Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis–my way of teaching myself what this great, great book might mean to us. The rest of youse will see the movie that Laura, Bruce, Mel, Mike, and I make of it.
Worlds Collide: A Play in Four Acts
Marcellinus Ammianus, a former commander of a Roman legion in Gaul, now sixteen volumes into a history of the Empire; he looks something like an Oxford don, very fussy, always lugubrious; he hunches his shoulders, but he towers over the others as he paces.
Jerome, a zealous Christian polemicist, author of commentaries on and translations of both Old and New Testaments, now mostly an adviser to wealthy women who want to take vows of chastity and to wealthy men who want to become monks or hermits; he’s tall, skinny, nervous, anxious, not of this world because his eyes are on the next.
Augustine of Hippo, a former libertine, now a bishop in the new, barely articulate Christian Church, author of “The Confessions,” the first memoir ever; he’s short, wiry, he looks vaguely African; his gestural repertoire is modern.
Servants, who come and go, often mumbling, sometimes speaking.
[It is 399 A.D., Rome, at the palatial home of Ammianus. The three men have come together at his invitation. He wants to know what fuels this new social movement called Christianity—or rather, what rhetorical resources it has marshaled, how it has succeeded.
We open with Ammianus, pacing thoughtfully, not fretfully, stage front, as servants come and go in the background. He turns toward the motion, than back to the audience.]
MA: I wonder why I care about this. It can’t last, this cult, these Christians. They’re deluded. They might as well be pigs, rooting about in the [he waves]. . . . They might as well be slaves. They are slaves. But this Jerome, he writes as much as I do, and now he advises women? The wives of my friends, who take vows of chastity, give away their jewelry. And their husbands become monks! And Augustine, these confessions of his, they’re cheap, they’re disgusting, but he writes in Latin, what is going on here? He’s an officer of this ecclesia, this church. And I read the confessions, I think, I know this man. But I don’t want to.
ENTER stage left, Jerome, accompanied by MA’s Second Servant [Peter, we will meet him later] and Jerome’s own assistant.
SERVANT: Master, I bring you Jerome, as per your invitation. Jerome, just that, sir, am I correct?
J: Yes, that is sufficient, that is my name, thank you. And you are Marcellinus Ammianus. I have read your histories, sir. All of them. You can go, my son. [Assistant leaves]
MA: There are 16 volumes.
J: I know, I have read them.
MA: May I ask you why?
J: This world is a temptation, a whirl of desire where the intoxication of cruelty becomes the reason to live—but it’s not real. When I read your histories, I am transported. I am delivered to another place.
MA: What place is that?
J: Heaven, where we can rest, where I rest, where I’m free of your cruelties, where my people rest.
MA: How can you believe that? This world is all we have, and it is made from cruelty. It is what we do best. We are, in our own way, mere beasts.
J: No, you are wrong, I have hope, we have hope, my fellow Christians . . .
MA: Hope? Tell me what that means.
J: It means that we believe in a better world, another world. It comes after us, after life. Heaven. Where nobody works, nobody sweats, nobody even thinks because there’s no reason to.
M: You hope for that?
ENTER, stage right, Augustine of Hippo, looking lost, no servant to deliver him, but he bounds into the room, his affect is that of a dancer who has wandered into a place with no music.
A: Am I in the right place? I’m supposed to be meeting with Marcellinus and Jerome. I got lost, it’s a big house. I let myself in.
MA: Welcome, Augustine. Did I pronounce that right? This is Jerome. You share a church.
A: I know Jerome. [They nod at each other, clearly at odds]
[INT. The three men stand stupidly facing each other, wondering what to do. Finally MA gestures to the couches, and they arrange themselves at a distance from each other, wondering what comes next.]
A: If I may, I want to know why I am here—why you invited me. And him.
MA: I want to know something about your belief, this church you call Christianity.
A [leaping off the couch, turning away from both], Why? Why would you want to know?
MA: My world is dying. I look around and I see decay. I can smell it. Perhaps your world will replace mine.
J: It already has, my lord, because we live in the end times, when the fires of hell will consume you, your flesh shall burn, and—
A: Oh, for God’s sake, Jerome, calm the fuck down, the man is asking a good question, and the world isn’t ending. Get a fucking grip on yourself.
J: You take the Lord’s name in vain.
A: We’re guests here, Jerome. And you’re the guy who writes the advice column for rich ladies who want to get to heaven. Lighten up.
MA: He does what?
A: He tells noble women how to abstain from sex, and give their shit away, so they feel safe when they die.
MA: I thought you were the theologian, the man who explains this God of yours.
J: I am, my lord, part of my task is to tell women still freighted with their jewels and their luxuries and their voluptuous bodies—my mission is to tell them how to leave these things behind.
MA: But why would they want to?
A: Good question.
J: You are still a libertine, Augustine, you have fucked every man and woman in Rome by now, you are not a legitimate party to this conversation. I am a man of God, and I will persuade this pagan.
MA: Pagan? I’ve lived here all my life, except for the years in Gaul. I’m not a peasant.
A: You won’t persuade him, Jerome, and now that I think about it, there are plenty of people in this town I haven’t fucked.
J: I will persuade him—
MA: No, you will not, that is not why you are here. You are here because I want to know how you believe, why you believe. This Jesus, this man, he’s the peasant. How can you worship a fool, a carpenter, a man who would not fight, a man who turns his cheek to be struck again?
J: He waits for us, in another world, the next life, the place he has prepared for us. We will join him there.
MA: I don’t understand. How do you believe in that?
A: I don’t understand, either, Jerome. And I gotta say, I don’t believe in this place, this heaven, the next life, whatever you call it. Where do you get that shit?
J: From the Gospels, Augustine, from the book, surely you know it, you are a bishop of this church—
A: That’s pending. I want to listen to Marcellinus now, he’s got us pegged as believers in something, I want to know what he thinks it is.
MA: Well. I will tell you what I believe. What I know. It’s not—it’s not easy, to say these things, what you believe, what you know. When did we start thinking we could speak our minds this way?
A: Just now. Nobody thought we had minds until now. Not until Jesus said so.
MA: Your minds, you mean? I suppose that is true. [He pauses] Jesus said so? But you are well born, Augustine, I knew your father. [He looks confused] All right, I will confess, like you did. I will tell you what I believe, as a former commander of a legion, as a writer of histories, as a citizen of Rome.
[SCRIM rises on back wall, depicting epic battles, phalanxes, MA becomes quiet voiceover. As he speaks, A and J become still, they pay attention to the man, and then they realize his words are enacted on the screen behind them, and so, with the rest of the audience, they turn to the back wall, they walk to STAGE left and right.]
MA: I was twelve years old when I joined. “Joined,” not really. I was conscripted. From the provinces. Calabria. I loved all of it—I was thrilled to be taken from my parents, they were stupid peasants. They got paid, for me. I did, too. I got paid, for my services.
What I learned in the legions is very simple. This world is unspeakably cruel, and ugly. Violent. You get used to it, or you die. You’re strong, or you’re weak. Like I said, you live or you die.
But you can be noble, even if you weren’t born that way. I tried. And I write the histories that way. “Noble.” What does that mean? It means you know the world for what it is, you accept it, it’s unspeakably cruel, and ugly, but you don’t let that change your mind, you do your duty, you carry on, and you know that nothing you do will change anything—except the way the next man dies. You can be merciful or not, but he’s just one man, and the rest of them, the people as you call them, your people, these masses who seethe, like snakes, you treat them like animals because that’s what they are. You kill them, you crush them, they’re insects.
A: They’re not animals. We’re not animals.
MA: You say ‘we.’
A: Yes, because I’m one of them, I’m equipped with a soul and God knows me as your equal and the equal of all others. I’m not any better than them, but I’m not an animal unless you are.
J: Augustine, please, Marcellinus is right, you are well born.
A: Fuck you, Jerome, and now that I think of it, I haven’t fucked you.
J: Marcellinus has a point, he’s trying to tell his story.
MA: I’m done. I’ve told my story. I’ll say this. Why do you believe in these, these “people”? They’re slaves, they’re whores. Like I said, they’re pigs, they act, they don’t think. You read, and you write. You’re not like them. Why do you believe in them?
J: I believe in God. I have no faith in these people. How could I? They have souls, but they’re buried in bodies trapped by sin, lust, desire, it is the next life that matters.
MA: Their next life? Yours?
A: Fuck you both. That’s not a proposition, you’re both assholes.
MA: I haven’t told the whole story. I became a commander of a legion in Gaul. I was a peasant from Calabria, a stupid boy, no manners, no languages. There I was, in charge of thousands of men who would do anything I told them to. One day, it was a normal day’s march, we came upon a tribe, a family, there were maybe fifteen or twenty of them, crossing a river, and I gave the order, I said, slaughter these barbarians, make the river red with their blood. And they did, it didn’t take very long.
Now I’m asking you, why do I feel regret? That is why you are here, in my home.
A: Maybe you have the soul God gave you. I wouldn’t count on it, though. You really are an asshole. This guy Jerome, too.
[Lights come up, dawn is breaking, the three men are in various stages of sleep on their respective couches, obviously inebriated—platters of food, bottles of wine are everywhere. Two SERVANTS are standing, STAGE left and right, holding plates, towels over their shoulders, wondering what to do. They look back and forth, from one to another, and toward these drunken men.]
[STAGE left, First Servant, a woman of roughly 20 years old, she is shapely, attractive, but short of beautiful; she carries curiosity as both a burden and a gift. STAGE right, Second Servant, a man of the same age, but fewer ideas.]
FS: I say we leave them alone. They can fight some more when they wake up.
SS: They are your masters, Mary. You owe them your life. Let’s just clean up here.
Mary: They are your masters, Peter, they are not mine. My master is Jesus, I own no other.
Peter: Oh for God’s sake, would you stop with that shit, your faith will kill you. Or me. It’s not even faith, what is it, it’s a cult, you worship a dead man, a man who died on a fucking cross—they crucified him, Mary, he’s dead, that’s it, why pretend he lives?
Mary: It’s not pretend, he lives. He’s not dead. He’s here, he’s with us. He tells me that I am saved, I’ll get to heaven.
Peter: Really? Where is that? Why do you think there’s anything but this?
Mary: A man I met, it was in Corinth I think, when I was first bound, his name was Saul of Tarsus, from Damascus, all he carried was a book. He had no baggage, no servants, nothing. He was really ugly. He said something like what you did, over and over, we’re stuck with this life, gotta make the best of it. Love and hope, he said. He tried to fuck me. But heaven, it’s real to me. I’ll get there.
Peter: Oh for God’s sake. Look at these drunken, stupid shits. Two of them are Christians, they believe like you, there’s an afterlife, heaven—also hell, right? The host of this party is a Roman, a citizen, he’s just as drunk and just as stupid, but he doesn’t believe in any of that crap.
Mary: You’re wrong, he invited them to witness. To see what he believes. I think he wants to be a Christian, like me.
Peter: No, you’re wrong, they’re here because he wants to know what they believe. Why they believe. But he’s no fool. His world is dead, he’s looking for a way out. How can you be so blind?
Mary: They’re waking up.
[Augustine stirs first, then Jerome. Marcellinus is still. A is confused. He looks quizzically at the SERVANTS, as if he belongs with them, then realizes he’s the guest of the great Marcellinus Ammianus. He rises, sits back down, shakes his head. He grabs a bottle of wine, takes a slug. He rests his forearms on his knees, looks at the floor. He addresses Jerome.]
A: You look like shit. What you’re peddling is a lie. Why do you tell slaves they’re free, and tell rich ladies they’re slaves to their possessions? You’re the whore, not them.
J: [He’s barely awake, doesn’t want this conversation, but he hates everything Augustine stands for, so he rises to the occasion] I have read your “Confessions,” Augustine, you are the whore. I hope to see you die—not on the cross, but in pain, tortured, writhing, begging for death.
A: I am a Christian, you fucking pig. [He pauses, he’s also barely awake, he looks at the SERVANTS] Don’t you know what Jesus did, what he said, what he wrought, don’t you understand why he came here, to this world, and stayed long enough to suffer, to die? How did you say it, “tortured, writhing, begging for death”?
That’s your fucking savior, Jerome, a fool, a carpenter, a man who would not fight, he turned his other cheek, but listen to me now, [he rises from the couch[ I am a bishop of your church and I will fight you, I will break your body in half, I will split you, I swear, because I don’t give a fuck about your church and your rules. Your heaven is a lullaby.
J: You are a barbarian, I always knew this about you, even before I read your “Confessions.” Christians are civilized, and we are the future.
A: We are the future, but not because we’re civilized. [He pauses, he gestures toward Marcellinus]. Do you think this man is civilized? Are they? [He turns toward the SERVANTS, and now he addresses them, not Jerome]. We changed the moral climate, and now the weather’s bad. We changed the rules—the winds are blowing differently these days because we decided slaves are just as important as this man. [Again he gestures toward the sleeping Marcelinus.]
Their stories, their lives, here and now. [Still facing the SERVANTS]. You say, the next life, that’s what matters, that’s when we inherit the earth. I say, this life is all we got. There’s no tomorrow, Jerome.
J: I suppose your friend Alypius would agree with you.
A: My friend Alypius is dead.
J: You wrote about him, his bloodlust, at the Coliseum, he lived by your rules, remember—no tomorrow. An educated man, a Stoic, a scholar, and he became a mere beast because he believed in nothing.
[A walks toward J, he reaches for a weapon that isn’t there. The SERVANTS move toward the middle, wondering if they can prevent this confrontation]
A: I’ll kill you for that, you—
[SCRIM rises on the back wall, we are witness to the gladiatorial games, we see gruesome, clumsy clashes, blood spattered, men dying, and we reverse shot to the friends Augustine and Alypius in the stands, Augustine watching his friend more than the games, Alypius enthralled by the violence. A stops, watches, droops.]
A: I couldn’t save him, nobody could.
J: He is not in heaven.
A: No, he’s not in heaven, you miserable prig. He didn’t believe in your Jesus. Nor mine. He believed like this man does [he gestures toward the sleeping MA], he believed in Fortune or Fate, or whatever they call it these days, he believed . . . I don’t know what he believed. I know what he said. He said, “This world is impossibly cruel, look at these creatures, but I am not like them. I can abstain, I can stand apart, and I will.” But he couldn’t.
J: [Now amazed] You loved him.
A: Yes, I loved him. He was my friend.
J: You didn’t save him.
A: No, I didn’t, you fucking pedant. Nobody could have. That’s the thing, Jerome, that’s the difference between me and you, you think the church can do that. Me, I know nothing can. So, I don’t care. I won’t judge you. I don’t care enough about you. But this world is better than you know.
J: You are the fool, Augustine.
[Lights come up, same scene, but now Marcellinus stirs. Augustine is looking out the window, arms folded. Jerome is reading from a book he found on the table before him, amidst the bottles of wine and the platters of food. SERVANTS converge, cleaning, wiping, bowing, scraping.]
MA [waking, he raises his hand, he speaks to no one in particular, he’s used to the diction of command]: Bring me water. A hot towel. These men are no doubt hungry. Feed them something.
[The SERVANTS gradually remove the remains of the night before as MA slowly wakes up, and as he takes in the scene: Augustine seems angry, Jerome is reading carefully . . . MA looks weary, puzzled, as he watches his guests, turning his head from side to side as if at a tennis match . . . SERVANTS return with food, water, wine, hot towels.]
MA: Where were we? I seem to remember that you two were disagreeing about something. And yet you share this church, this faith. This world as well, Rome itself, the center of the universe.
[Nobody moves or speaks. Jerome keeps reading, Augustine stares out the window]
MA: We are not here to ignore each other. Come, gentlemen, at least face each other. Face me if you cannot do that.
All right. Let me tell you again why you are here. Why do I feel this regret? I have killed many men, I was trained to do it—that was my job. But listen now, I have killed women and children, too, I have disemboweled them, do you know what that means? I split them with my sword and watched them die slowly, as they begged for mercy while they stared at their own organs wriggling in the dirt. Their intestines kept moving.
[SCRIM rises again, but the images are blurred, and modern, too fast for comprehension: Serbia, Ghana, Nigeria, and last but not least, the American Civil War]
I don’t regret these acts. I was a warrior. But that family crossing the river . . . And our own time, I begin to think that Jerome is right, these are the end times. My world is disappearing. The question is, how does yours get born? Is it the next world, Jerome? Or is it this one, Augustine, the one you are so attached to?
I have read your books.
[Augustine relaxes, unfolds his arms, turns toward the others, as Jerome rises from the couch holding the book]
J: You have read this one, his “Confessions”?
MA: Yes, of course, that is why he is here.
J: Listen to me, my lord, I will read from Book 10 of these “Confessions.” He thinks he is a god, he forgives our Lord, he writes this:
“Like you, my Lord, but also my fellow men and women, I will renounce my powers and submit my own body to the judgments of this profane world, where I am sure to suffer unto death. I will forgive your transgressions, O my God, by relinquishing this greatest power, of memory, and forgetting your trespasses against us.”
There is more, all blasphemy. Listen now, please my lord, these are Augustine’s own words.
“But what is nearer to me than myself? And lo, the force of mine own memory is not understood by me, though I cannot so much as name myself without it. For what shall I say, when it is clear to me that I remember forgetfulness?”
A: “Great is the power of memory, a fearful thing, O my God, a deep and boundless manifold”—I can quote myself, I can convict myself, you sniveling shit—“and this thing is the mind, and this I am myself.” That’s also from Book 10.
MA: I agree with Augustine.
J: I know you do, and this is what worries me, that is why I am here. He is not a Christian. You misunderstand us. Your world is gone.
MA: But he believes in it. He loves the world you despise. How can you both be Christians?
A: I love this world, he loves the next. I can’t explain it. Ask him, for fuck’s sake.
MA: No, I will ask you.
[SCRIM rises again, now we see late medieval images, of the Christ, and of the Crusades, as the lights go down]
[INT. The three men are again seated as the lights come up, but now they’re closer together, they sit on their respective couches but their bodies are turned toward each other, as if they need to address one another. SERVANTS (Mary and Peter) hover, moving slowly, hesitantly, they know they’re witnesses to a dangerous scene, but they also know they somehow preside—they will inherit the earth, not these men. It looks, too, like all five of these people might be coming together: they’re converging on some truth they can hear but can’t yet say.]
A: All right, then, I will answer you, Marcellinus Ammianus. [He gulps some wine, turns toward Jerome] Jerome, you cite these Gospels when you call me a blasphemer. Matthew, Mark, blah, blah, who are these men? It’s now centuries later, they never saw the man, your Jesus. Nor mine. Neither did Saul of Tarsus.
[Mary and Peter exchange looks; Augustine turns his head toward Mary as if he overheard that conversation]
But they are all of what you call your new testament. What’s new about it?
MA: That’s not even a question, these are thieves, fishmongers, whores, they’re not worth the words you use, they—
A: I’m not asking you, Marcellinus, I’m asking him, and I’m asking them [he gestures toward the hovering servants], what is it?
J: It’s the kingdom of God, you fool, how can you be so blind? It’s not heaven on earth, it’s the kingdom to come, when Jesus returns. If this world is all there is, we’re slaves, like them [he also gestures toward the servants, and they each take a step closer, as if being invited into this conversation, and again they exchange looks].
A: You officious ass, we are slaves, like them. No matter when that kingdom comes. Can you not see this, what Jesus taught us?
MA and J, at once: We are not slaves.
A: Fine, you’re free men. Choose, then. This world or the next, Jerome? These people or your own kind, Marcellinus, the well-born and the well-educated? That’s where you are. It’s not where I am—it’s not my world. I will leave you now.
MA: You cannot leave.
A: I am not your slave. [He looks at Mary, then back at MA]
MA: I beseech you: please do not leave. [Now he looks at Mary, too, as if he needs the guidance of his servant, whose name he doesn’t even know]
I invited you here to see—to understand this thing, this Christianity. And now it is even more . . . confusing, it sounds insane. It makes no sense. Jerome says his God waits for us on the other side of this life, you say No, mine is here and now or he’s nowhere at all.
J: My lord, this man is a fool, an imposter. He is not a Christian, he is a barbarian. He writes, forgive me, he writes shit that makes me wince, he pretends to be a man of the people but he is not, and nobody can be because you are right, they are animals, mere beasts [he looks over his shoulder at Peter, who takes another step closer].
He is learned, but he is like them, he’s an animal.
MA: Augustine, what say you?
A: I say, fuck you. This “thing,” this Christianity, makes sense, but only if you grant these people [he gestures toward the servants, who step closer, exchanging glances] their lives, or, I don’t know how to say this to you, control of their own souls, how’s that? They’re slaves. They get to speak for themselves, anyway.
MA: No. That is simply impossible. It is ridiculous. [Jerome nods]
Mary: My lord, if I may, I have never done you better service than now to bid you hold. I can speak for myself.
MA: A peasant stand up thus? What have you to say? [She’s within reach, he shakes his head and casually slaps her, backhanded]
Peter: My lord, I am not a Christian, but come now, and take the chance of anger, I swear I will split you if you ever touch her again. Or me. I am a slave, I am your slave, but I will speak these words . . . I will say this . . . [He doesn’t know what to say to MA] . . . Mary, are you, are you all right?
A: I will leave you now.