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Only We Who Guard The Mystery Shall Be Unhappy | The Nation

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Only We Who Guard The Mystery Shall Be Unhappy

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This scene is the first of a new play titled Only We Who Guard the Mystery
Shall Be Unhappy
. No performance or reading of this work may be given
without express permission of the author, which will be happily granted
to anyone wanting to use it at antiwar events. For permission please
contact him at: MysteryGuardians@aol.com.

At the close of George W. Bush's news conference after the Republican sweep of Congress last month, a reporter asked what the president had given his wife for their 25th anniversary, Nov. 5, which the couple celebrated at the White House. Mr. Bush, who was by then out of camera range, responded with a lascivious wink, prompting startled laughter from reporters who had no trouble figuring out what he meant. --Elisabeth Bumiller
New York Times Book Review, December 1, 2002

About the Author

Tony Kushner
Tony Kushner’s most recent work includes the new play The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and...

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(Three children in pajamas and bathrobes sit in small chairs in a neat row. Behind them, an angel is standing. Before them, facing them, a large comfortable armchair, unoccupied. Beautiful light.
      The angel is, and remains throughout the play, unfailingly kind and polite.)

ANGEL:

Dear Children. Please rise and give a warm welcome to our distinguished visitor, the First Lady of the United States, Mrs. Laura Welch Bush.

(The children rise, wave their arms excitedly, open their mouths to cheer. The only sound they make is the bird music from Olivier Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise.

Laura Bush enters, dressed in a purple plaid ensemble, carrying a book. She speaks with a gentle Texas drawl. She is a very nice lady. The children cheer and cheer.
       She stands in front of the armchair. She motions for the children to stop cheering and sit.)

ANGEL:

Sit, children.

(They do.)

LAURA BUSH:

Why thank you children. I don't believe I've ever had a more beautiful welcome, really really lovely. But... May I ask?

ANGEL:

Please.

LAURA BUSH:

Most of the kids I meet when I visit for a reading program--and I do so many of these, I love reading to kids, I meet so many kids--but most of the kids are, are wearing----

ANGEL:

They aren't usually wearing pajamas?

LAURA BUSH:

No, they aren't! They...well, they wear uniforms! Or if they go to a school that doesn't require uniforms, they wear, well of course you like to see them dressed neat, I do, but you know they'll wear all sorts of things. Except PJs. I just never saw that before. It's sweet.

ANGEL:

Perhaps this is the first time you have read to dead children, Mrs. Bush?

LAURA BUSH:

Perhaps it is! And I have to admit, children, I'm nervous. I've never met actual dead children before. Nor actual children from Iraq. Before I met my husband I traveled all over, children, all over the world, and since we moved into the White House I have also traveled, but never to Iraq. So you are the first Iraqi children I've met and you look real sweet in your PJs. And I'm sorry you're dead, but all children love books. All children can learn to love books if you read to them. That's why I've come--to read to you, to share one of my favorite books with you, because when a parent reads to a child, or any adult reads to a child, even if that child is dead, the child will learn to love books, and that is so, so important. (To one of the children:) How did you die, darling?

ANGEL:

In 1999, an American plane dropped a bomb filled with several tons of concrete on the power station near his village. He was already malnourished; he had been malnourished since birth, because of the sanctions. The power station that was crushed by the bomb was believed to be supplying power to a plant suspected of producing certain agents necessary for the development of biotoxins. We do not know if it did. We do know that it supplied power for the water purification system for his village. He already had gastroenteritis and nearly chronic diarrhea, for which medicines were unavailable. Then the water purification system failed and he drank a glass of water his mother gave him infested by a large intestinal parasite. He died of dehydration, shitting water, then blood, then water again, so much! Then a trickle, everyone was sad, there was no food, he shook so hard the screws holding his bed together were loosened. It took three days to die.

LAURA BUSH:

That's really awful.

ANGEL:

Yes.

LAURA BUSH:

Saddam Hussein is a terrible man.

ANGEL:

Yes.

LAURA BUSH:

(To the child:) Darling I'm sorry. I truly am. What a terrible world. May I sit?

ANGEL:

Oh of course, please do!

(She sits in the armchair.)

LAURA BUSH:

What can I say to you? Oh how can I say this? It isn't right that you should have had to die because your country is run by an evil man who is accumulating weapons of mass destruction. But he is, you see, he really is, everyone knows this and he will kill many, many other children all over the world if he isn't stopped. So, so it was um, necessary for you to die, sweetie, oh how awful to say that, but it was, precious. (To the angel:) May I hug him? I just would like to----

ANGEL:

I'm afraid not, Mrs. Bush. The children aren't... ummm, they're incorporeal, they're like...shadows, or mirages, or dreams, it's hard to explain.

LAURA BUSH:

And why are they in their pajamas?

ANGEL:

Oh yes, I was about to explain. In Paradise, all dead children wear pajamas.

LAURA BUSH:

Always?

ANGEL:

Only pajamas, for all eternity. Bathrobes and slippers too, of course.

LAURA BUSH:

Well isn't that fascinating. Why is that?

ANGEL:

Like all children in pajamas they are full of regret that their day has ended. But also secretly they are comforted, like all children in pajamas. Murdered children, the children who died especially terrible deaths--this child for example! (The angel indicates a child:) She was in a shelter in 1991. A smart bomb found its way down the ventilator shaft of the shelter. The smart bomb believed, mistakenly, that it had found the ventilator shaft of a factory that manufactured parts for nuclear weapons, but the bomb was mistaken. Four hundred people were incinerated at a temperature of 900 degrees Fahrenheit. It was on CNN. Perhaps you watched?

LAURA BUSH:

No, I...oh my God! I did! I saw! It was green! Phosphorus! Night footage! I remember that.

ANGEL:

Melting felt to her, paradoxically, like the turning of an instant into solid ice, and then in the next instant like drowning in wild ocean surf, jumbled inside out, only fast, and then she was dead. Her family had been celebrating Eid! Children who die especially terrible deaths are given especially nice pajamas. Please continue your explanation. Mrs. Bush is explaining why you are dead, and in addition to being married to the President of the United States she is also a smart lady, she was a librarian! Please listen children.

LAURA BUSH:

(Softly, trying hard to explain:) Because without sanctions there'd be no stopping him. And perhaps there'll be a war and many, many more Iraqi children will die, and oh, honey, no one wants that, no one wanted you dead! Oh God no, I mean God no, what sort of animal would want that? No, it's a terrible sin and I'm sure we'll all have to pay for it, me and Bushie and--I call him Bushie, my husband, I'm not supposed to do that in public, I promised I wouldn't but then he went and made that joke the other day that I wasn't out on the campaign trail for the midterm elections because I had to stay in Crawford and sweep the porch after it rained, and you know children I keep a very, very neat house and yes I do sweep the porch but he makes me sound sometimes like a...a frump! And anyway Bushie is a funny name, huh, a funny name for a President, President Bushie? Without sanctions and war, Saddam will go on till he has the power to do something unspeakable to another country, to the US or, or, well any other country, it could be anywhere. He gassed the Kurds! So he must be stopped and you, you were caught in crossfire and that is...

There's just no word for what it is.

And we'll pay for your deaths one way or another. He just hates it when I say that, my husband, it's not in his nature to think that way, but I believe it, sweetie, I do. I think there is guilt when a child dies even if the death was in a just cause, and one person's guilt is guilt for everyone--that's in this beautiful book (she holds out the book)--and we suffer that guilt, me and Bushie and Poppy and Bar and the UN Security Council; and you suffered your death, all sorts of Iraqi people die for the sins of your leader, for his evil, and you know some people say serves 'em right, but that's just vengeful and, and indiscriminate and those people are wrong. They're wrong is all, and (to the angel:) how many children have died in Iraq, you know, what with the sanctions and the bombing and all?

ANGEL:

The bombings of course have never stopped; they have been continuous since the Gulf War ended. It never ended.

LAURA BUSH:

How many children, do you know?

ANGEL:

Hundreds of children. Thousands of children. 150,000 children. 400,000 children. Who's counting? No one is counting. A lot. From diseases related to the sanctions and the power outages and the depleted uranium dust shed from the casings of American missiles? Perhaps related? Probably related? Nearly 600,000 children have died. Many, many children have died.

LAURA BUSH:

Oh gosh. And on the bright side, all those dead children and yet look, you have maintained such a low student-teacher ratio. Three-to-one!

ANGEL:

We believe a low student-to-teacher ratio is necessary for learning.

LAURA BUSH:

I agree!

ANGEL:

And yet in the United States it's so high, on the average.

LAURA BUSH:

On the average, thirty-to-one, forty-to-one! Way, way too high! I was a teacher once. Before I married Bushie. Or, as I sometimes call him, The Chimp. You know, those ears. It would be nice if there was government money to make schools smaller. For living children. But you see, honey, sweetie, precious--do they have names?

ANGEL:

They do, but I'm not allowed to tell you.

LAURA BUSH:

Why not?

ANGEL:

I'm not allowed to tell you that, either. Sorry.

(Little pause.)

LAURA BUSH:

Oh. All right. Well anyway, children, free educations with three-to-one student-teacher ratios or even twenty-to-one student-teacher ratios or even enough classrooms with enough desks to sit in would be swell, wouldn't it, but...one of the lessons from the wonderful book I'm going to read to you today is that if you accept free bread, or free whatever, education, daycare, whatnot, if you accept that free stuff you will have to give up freedom in exchange, and that isn't right. Freedom is what matters, not things of the earth. Like food. And I know you died starving, honey, but look at your nice pajamas! Do you see what I mean?

ANGEL:

Children, do you see what Mrs. Bush means?

(They stand and answer, talking happily, but again the only sound is Messiaen's birds.)

ANGEL:

They really like you, Mrs. Bush.

LAURA BUSH:

And I really like them.

ANGEL:

What is the book you're going to read to them?

LAURA BUSH:

It's my favorite passage from my favorite book, children. The book is a Russian novel of the nineteenth century, and it's called The Brothers Karamazov, and the section I love most from this wonderful book is called "The Grand Inquisitor." Well, it's a little strong for live children, so I usually read them, oh, you know, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but I figured, being dead, you all command a broader view, and I hope you're going to like it. I think you will!

ANGEL:

Who is the author?

LAURA BUSH:

A reactionary Christian mystic epileptic compulsive gambler anti-Semitic Russian nationalist genius genius genius named Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky! Some people say he was the greatest novelist ever, and I agree with those people, he was! I love him, I really sort of am in love with him. I think he and I would have had a real understanding. He wasn't so nice, apparently, but he would have gotten me, I think, you know? What I go through, daily, in my heart. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky was I think...sometimes I think the only man who could really understand me, and many, many women feel this way. At least in Texas we do. They broke a sword over his head, Dostoyevsky, then they tied him to a post and over and over they were going to shoot him for treason but they didn't, it was a sick joke, can you imagine children, how ghastly, knowing, just knowing you were going to die and then, and then...you open your eyes and you are still alive! Still alive! How horrible! To be still alive! If my husband had been in charge back then Dostoyevsky would've been dead for sure--my husband, he executed everyone they told him to, everyone they let him, I should say, my God, a hundred-and-something people and he never even missed his early, early bedtime, nor for that matter, from what I could see as I sat up reading and rereading Dostoyevsky, ever even stirred in his sleep! Notes From the Underground, The Possessed, The Idiot and he'd be all, like (she imitates a hideous bass snore:) KKKKKKKZZZZZZNNNNXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXxxxxxxxxxxx.

Well he was tired.

He's tired a lot.

From the gym.

(Little pause. She is lost in thought.)

ANGEL:

Mrs. Bush?

LAURA BUSH:

Well, anyway, in this section of The Brothers Karamazov, an atheist intellectual, Ivan, is telling his sweet, handsome young brother, Alyosha, about a poem he's made up, about Christ our Lord--well, not your Lord...you are probably Muslims?

ANGEL:

They are.

LAURA BUSH:

That's nice! There's nothing wrong with that! But this is a Christian story. Is that OK?

ANGEL:

Children?

(They stand and respond. Bird music.)

LAURA BUSH:

I'll take that for a yes! It's a universal tale! I bet it has been translated into Arabic, even into...whatever it is you are speaking now, um, bird music! Dostoyevsky's Ivan, arrogant like all intellectuals, and an atheist too--like most intellectuals he's an atheist. They're mostly all godless, even the ones think they're religious. The smarter they are the more godless, seems to me, but I don't really hold that against them like some do. I mean this'll stay between us, right, but don't get Lynne Cheney started, OK? Woo-OO!

Ivan tells his pretty young brother this story: Jesus Christ has come back to earth, back to the streets of Seville during the Spanish Inquisition, and the first thing He does, well, this will interest all of you, Christ immediately resurrects a dead little girl! Jesus says "Sit up," and the dead little girl does, sits up in her coffin, holding a white rose bouquet. But then the Grand Inquisitor, this 90-year-old Catholic bishop, he's passing by and sees this miracle, so he arrests Jesus Christ and throws him in a dark, filthy filthy dungeon, with, you know, old rotten straw and mouse pillies and, and the Grand Inquisitor says, "I know just who you are"--everyone recognizes Christ, somehow they all just know him! "I know just who you are and I am going to burn you at the stake in the morning as I have burned one hundred-and-something people already, and I didn't lose a nickel's worth of sleep over any of 'em." Some Christian, huh?

And what you will hear if you listen carefully, children, is how the Grand Inquisitor is really a godless old miscreant who has abandoned God for the devil, whom he calls "The Dread Spirit." But it's the devil no matter what fancy name you call him, and how he and his church, the Catholics--and that's another reason I can't read this to live American kids, is the Catholics are so friggin' touchy!--the Catholic Church wants to correct the mistakes the Grand Inquisitor says Jesus made when he was here the first time out. People want bread! They don't want God or freedom, they want bread! And they want to be free of free will! And they want everything to be uniform, universal everywhere, everyone just alike! This is what the Grand Inquisitor says. Jesus wanted people to be free, the Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus, but people can't manage freedom so the Church, and not just the Church but totalitarians of all sorts throughout history are here to enslave them, feed them, dictate to them. That's what the Grand Inquisitor offers, freedom from freedom! And he tells Jesus they will make a world, he and his fellow comrade totalitarians, he and his big government buddies, where hundreds of millions of people will be happy, fed slaves--they'll even be allowed to sin, a little, just so they feel happier being slaves. Whereas Christ would never manage more than a handful of followers, only a very few would be strong enough to be actual free people and follow Jesus, whereas the Grand Inquisitor would be leading hundreds of millions of happy sinful slaves, every one of whom is proud to call him or herself a Christian!

And because, because he was such a great writer and this is such great, great literature, when you read it sometimes with all the "do-ests" and "thinkests" and "wouldsts" and "thous" like in the Bible, and as you listen to the immensely persuasive powerful tongue Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky put in the mouth of the Grand Inquisitor, sometimes--even though I know the Inquisitor is the villain and Christ is the hero--Christ says nothing. And my eyes start to blur sometimes when I am reading this passage and I forget who is the villain and who is the hero and I think, you know, "Right ON Grand Inquisitor FOR GOD'S SAKE WOULD IT BE SO GODDAM TERRIBLE to FEED PEOPLE, AND AND IS IT REALLY WORTH IT STARVING KIDS SO THEY CAN WEAR PJs IN HEAVEN?"

And because it's genius literature of the first rank, and not some magazine article, your eyes sometimes reblur all over again as you're reading the twisty words, and all of a sudden you don't agree with the Inquisitor, he's the devil again, talking talking, but suddenly something has happened and it's not the people you are used to thinking of as evil totalitarian people who are the evil totalitarian people who are the pals of the Inquisitor and, well, the devil! You think wait a minute, isn't this Grand Inquisitor starting to sound like (whispers) John Ashcroft, who just between us--(she shudders violently) Cuh-REEPy. You lose track of who is who, your compass is gone all screwy, you started out knowing for sure, and you end up adrift, and the more you think on it the more the clarity of the argument sort of melts like people in 900-degree Fahrenheit heat, and all you can see anymore is pain, pain and more pain, like it's not about ideas anymore, it's just about raw naked SUFFERING, and...

And I know, because, because I have suffered. I mean, he was right, the Grand Inquisitor was right, let's be honest. It's too hard, the choice between good and evil, it's too hard. Knowing it's yours. Yours to make. You know all those times you betrayed God, you drank and smoked and hated your folks or your kids and you make a stupid little nothing mistake like everyone else makes and gets away with but you don't, blammo! All the perfumes of Araby can't wash the blood from your poor little hand, who cares if everyone else makes this mistake, GOD DOESN'T CARE, you are BUSTED forever! Only, only a a a shitty person, pardon my French, only a really shitty, shitty person who isn't a real person but only seems to be but is actually an animal forgives themselves for...

The death of children.

But for those of us who aren't like that, we must be punished.

Just between us.

And Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky understood this, he wasn't snowy old high-toned Count Tolstoy, no, he's down there in the shit with you, froth on his lips and his thick tongue stiff, stiff and distended, dear Fyodor Mikhailovich, the smell of cigar smoke clinging to the coarse nubbly wool of his cheap black suit and his foul epileptic's breath, and sometimes, when, when I must suffer the touch of, of HIM. The Dread Spirit in his newest disguise. Sometimes when his hands are on me I say to my lonesome self, "Laura Welch, this is not The Dread Spirit who is touching you, it's just dear, dear Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky," and he puts his whiskery mouth close to my ear and he hisses, "Sinner!" He knows, he's the only one who knows what that word means! SINNER! I like children! I really, really do! 600,000? Jesus Christ. A year from now, in what pit of hell will I awake!? I was a Democrat when I was a girl! This is what great literature can do! He weeps as he rattles me. I never shall be chaste except he ravish me. And I am rattled till my screws come loose, I am rattled like, like...the way, when I am in a mood, I attack and scour a sooty pot.

(She demonstrates this: A wild, wild, savage assault with a steel-wool pad on a large grimy greasy skillet, one hand gripping the skillet like a vise, the other arm working like a steam piston; growling, tears.

The children stare.

Laura Bush slumps.

Little pause.)

ANGEL:

Mrs. Bush?

LAURA BUSH:

Children, could you make that sound again for me?

(They stand and comply. She listens.)

LAURA BUSH:

Great! Thank you children. You are beautiful. I should start to read. May I kiss them first?

(The angel considers the request.)

ANGEL:

Go ahead.

LAURA BUSH:

Thank you.

At the end of "The Grand Inquisitor" Christ kisses the Inquisitor on the lips. And the Inquisitor lets him go. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky lets this pass without comment. We call this ambiguity. Is it a Judas kiss? Is it a kiss of approval? Forgiveness? Sexual lust? After we are done, perhaps you will tell me, in this wonderful bird music of yours.

(She gets up, goes to the children, kisses each child on the forehead, returns to the armchair, picks up her book. She looks down, opens it, then looks up.)

LAURA BUSH:

Thank you, children. The kiss glows in my heart. That's from The Brothers Karamazov.

(She reads:)

"In His infinite mercy He came once more among men in that human shape in which He walked among men for three years fifteen centuries ago."

In fact, now that I think of it, it's something Ivan says about the Grand Inquisitor.

(She finds the page:) Here it is. "The kiss glowed in his heart. But the old man adhered to his ideas."

(She closes the book. She looks troubled. She smiles at the children. They smile at her.)

LAURA BUSH

: The kiss glows in my heart.

But.

I adhere to my ideas.

End of Scene.

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