A Play in One Act
Deus Ex Machina
By G. L. Horton
copyright © 1982
The PLAYWRIGHT: A ludicrous Modern American Wannabe,
of whatever age or gender.
DIONYSIS: The gorgeous, effeminate, powerful Greek God,
somewhat shabby after eons of neglect
EURIPEDES: The arrogant Greek Playwright, circa: 500BC
Time/Place: now, no place in particular
Scene: From left, a huge old trunk overflowing with paper
is laboriously pushed onstage by the PLAYWRIGHT, who drops to
a kneeling position from the strain.
Oh, God. I'll never make it. I can't do this, not again. Oh, God.
That's the only way, with help from some god. Dionysus! Patron
of drunkards and theatre freaks--Heellp! (lightening, thunder,
DIONYSUS (in awe-inspiring tones)
Who calls on the mighty Dionysus? (poses majestically, then notices
the cowering PLAYWRIGHT)
You? You're the one? (sighs) I was rather hoping for a person
of some importance. A head of state, say. No? (PLAYWRIGHT shakes
head, bracing the trunk)
Chair of the National Endowment? Winegrowers Association?
Afraid not. I'm just a playwright. (offers to shake hands)
DIONYSUS (brushes him off)
Oh. Well, a nobody's better than nobody at all. You did call on
Uh.. yes, sir, I did. I'm sorry if it wasn't--
I couldn't be absolutely sure. It's been such a long time. Well,
just a blink for an Eternal, but it did rather seem as if you
mortals had completely forgotten --
Well, uh--. Not forgotten, exactly. But I sure didn't expect personal
I didn't use to. Wouldn't've considered it. But I've been at loose
ends, lately. My jurisdiction seems to have shrunk over the last
thousand or so. Some red person with horns seems to have taken
over substance abuse.
You are still in charge of the theatre?
As far as I know. I mean, who else wants it?
I'm trying to push my stuff up Parnassus.
What is that?
It's-uh-my--stuff. Scripts. First drafts, twelfth drafts, rejection
slips, form letters, grant applications, playbills- I seem to
Oh, no. Not that. Characters, words, scenes, they just pour out.
Every time I have a few hours away from my day job! And in my
dreams at night, epics, armies, choruses and queens-
So what's the problem?
I can't get them onto the stage! Stillborn. No producer will even
look at them. I figure I need to win a contest.
A drama contest? Like in the old days, like my Greater Dionysia?
What a blow-out that was! You've come to the right Immortal, mortal.
You'll help me?
You should have seen the offerings! White bulls, whole roast pigs!
If you'll get us a fire started--! (PLAYWRIGHT looks shocked)
It is customary.
I'm kind of---. A whole roast pig? Listen, uh-- could I interest
you in a slightly used soul--?
Not me-- that's the horns guy! You know, calling me down here
when you're not serious verges on blasphemy. The classical punishment
for blasphemy-- (winding up to loose thunderbolt)
Whoa! I'm serious. Whatever I get, you get! But I've got no pigs,
got nothing, really. I win, as my agent, you'll take 20-- no,
take the 80%!
Of nothing? I need to see some evidence of faith here. Some sacrifice.
Ok, I've got 480 bucks. I was going to make a payment on my health
insurance. But you take it. In my billfold, right hand pocket.
(PLAYWRIGHT turns, gestures. DIONYSUS reaches out and takes the
wallet, appreciates the buns. PLAYWRIGHT squirms, the trunk slides
backward, threatening to crush the writer)
Watch it! Why don't I take care of this for you?
(magically the trunk becomes light and stable)
There. We can sit down now, have a drink and talk deal.
Whew! Thanks, your godhead.
DIONYSUS (magically pours wine)
I used to juggle the ballots some, back then. You won't say anything?
I mean there were times when one of Euripides’ scripts was on
the insulting side, and I didn't think it was good for public
morale for him to win. You understand?
Yeah. You can fix it. IF I get into the finals. But to make it
past first round readers I need-- I don't know. There's got to
be a knack to it. Hit em with a high concept, and then--?
Structure's not my strong suit. Divine afflatus, that's me. If
inspiration's what you need --say, let me give you a refill.
(pours wine) 523 was a great year, huh? So, how many other writers're
you in competition with?
As near as I can figure, 20,000.
20,000 playwrights! That's not an art form, it's an epidemic!
12,000 in the Dramatists Guild, and another 7,000 in the Writer's,
not counting the ones who just do screenplays.
How many of them are any good?
Who knows? Of the ones produced, say, one out of fifty. But maybe
the best are de-selected. You know? I've got friends better than
Wasserstein, better than Mamet, even. Not to mention my own--
(offers to get out manuscripts)
DIONYSUS (waves manuscripts away)
But in your miserable transient lives there's not enough time
-- even if the whole population did nothing but attend the Festival
every day in the year.
You see the problem. Also, the whole population doesn't see plays.
Maybe two people out of a thousand.
Is that the same two out of a thousand that writes them?
So, help me! My stuff has got to stand out, make the judges's
hair stand on end, grab him by the balls.
Way to go! Trouble is, I don't know much about art. I know what
I like: ball grabbers. Maybe I should get you an expert? Aeschylus!
How about Aeschylus? He's the greatest.
I don't think he'll be much help, here. He was old-fashioned in
your day, and by now--.
Right. Not a fun person. In some circles, Aristotle --.
God, no! A critic?
Never could stand the fellow, myself. But if it's rules you're
after, Ari' is
Forget it. People who follow his formulas write pretentious dreck.
I knew we'd come to it. You want Euripides. All right. But be
warned. Our relations are somewhat strained. Not that there's
hostility on my side, I hope I'm bigger than that!
Euripides is why you're still famous!
DIONYSUS (thunderclap, puff of smoke)
Pardon, pardon, o magnanimous one! I just meant that in our present
ignorance, Euripides' Baccae is all that offers us a glimpse of
Goddam scribbler. I told him an anecdote, that's all. In confidence,
over an amusing 480 retsina, and what does he do but make a major
work out of it?
With you at its center, sir, what could it be but major?
Do I lisp? Shabby stereotype, is what I call it.
From Olympus it may look that way. But to mortals-- Well, It is,
like, awesome. When you do your earthquake--
That bit's not bad, actually. The scale is too modest, but Rip
at least gives some indication of my -- well, I'd only told him,
he didn't really witness..I wind up like this, see--! (demonstrates)
PLAYWRIGHT (stops him)
Don't !Please, sir! I'm sure it's tremendous.
I suppose it's not Rip's fault he couldn't-- as you say, even
a barely adequate drama with me in it is far superior to some
vulgar claptrap about incest or war or --. But still, for a fellow
to be exploiting his patron god like that is not nice, don't you
agree? I hope you have better manners, mortal.
I wouldn't dream of--
All right. I'll get Rip for you. (puff of smoke)
EURIPIDES (appears, roaring & rubbing his eyes)
Who summons me from my Elysian sleep?
PLAYWRIGHT (frightened, points)
Dionysus, old God! Long time no see. What's up?
I want you to assist this worshiper of mine to write a prizewinning
play. Now, don't look put-upon. You've nothing better to do.
How well we know each other after a few millennia.
What kind of play are we talking about?
Something that will appeal to the committee of readers. I suspect
that they are people twenty-something years old, who've read one
of your plays, or maybe Oedipus, and a couple Shakespeare and
Arthur Miller and seen 20,000 hours of TV.
I'll help if I can. As Dionysus implied, the boredom in the hereafter
is --. It's wonderful at first, greeting loved ones and all that.
Getting to know heroes and celebrities. And if you're into research,
it's all there. But after about 300 years, I figured it out: for
an artist, heaven's hell.
Rip always exaggerates. Irony! Paradox!
You can't think of anything new!
Nothing new? That must be terrible.
Some of us don't mind. Samuel Beckett. Aeschylus. Aeschylus had
maybe three bright ideas when he was a young man, and he wrote
68 plays without ever having another one.
Are you going to believe what you read in some book, or take the
word of a man who's yawned through revivals of all 68 of them?
But artists like myself, like Ibsen, we are tortured by what we
might have created, had we known. Lope Da Vega, with his thousand-plus
plays, even he can't remember what's --
PLAYWRIGHT (breaks in, excited)
Wait a minute! After 300 years you had the idea that you had no
new ideas. That was new, wasn't it?
DIONYSUS (daintily eating grapes)
You do paradox too! I adore paradox.
Good point. But I had that idea alive, on a chilly night when
I was fifteen. My favorite cousin was dying of the fever, and
I was looking out at the bleak winter hills and thinking how I
would miss him when he crossed to death's kingdom. I imagined
then what Hades was like, and how when a man goes down into the
grave he passes into the past. There all of history is revealed,
and every biography traceable to the last detail
Except it's boring.
Because it's missing the one element that makes it drama: surprise!
The dead are totally known to me, now, but I cannot make them
speak as living characters--.
That's OK. I'm pretty good at characterization, myself. Probably
because I'm a good listener.
As for spectacle, your technology is so much more sophisticated--
Never mind that. Any theatre that might be interested in me is
on a tight budget. A couple of bedsheets, a trunk --
Then where you want my help is in plot. The soul of drama. My
plots were not universally admired. But in my hands the oldest
stories became new, each analogy hammered into place on the mighty
frame, jeweled with irony--
Especially if he could make some gods look petty.
EURIPIDES (to DIONYSUS)
In a small-minded time, even the gods shrink. (to PLAYWRIGHT)
I was especially sharp about the devolution of the assembly and
the law courts. I showed language slipping away, taking on a life
of its own aside from the expression of truth--
That's certainly important. But--
You want to be sure that you structure your narrative in such
a way that the relation to the community is clear. Pick a representative
group to be your chorus, and show how the elite refuses to heed
even divine warnings, when they come from foreigners or women
or slaves. It's a grave responsibility, when officials are sitting
in the front row, and you must expose whatever vanity and foolishness
is clouding their judgment before the assembled citizens and
Whoa! Stop! Nobody's about to let me do all that! To get a piece
on, any piece, even a short 3-character no-set one act, I have
to get credentials. Impress important people. Not insult them.
To win this contest for a ten minute play--
EURIPIDES (roar of rage)
Ten minutes? Mighty God! Send your thunderbolt ! Smite this blasphemer!
PLAYWRIGHT (kneels, clings to Dionysus)
DIONYSUS (petting playwright)
Make allowances, Rip. Times change--
Time is a dimension, that doesn't change! Ten minutes! For an
action of magnitude? A play is a microcosm, a mirror for mankind
the width of a world! Justice, Dionysus!
I'm sorry you're upset, Rip. But is this an occasion for divine
retribution? I mean, to an Eternal Being, the difference between
ten minutes and ten hours is scarcely significant.
Jehovah took six days for a world, the Vedas three: the playwright
is entitled to at least an hour! This aspiring cockroach here,
this puffed-up midge--
Look! Our attention span is zilch! We watch commercials, we
surf, ten minutes is the most we can--
Let not your glory be traduced, o lord of wine-wisdom and year
patterning dances. Strike down this heretic--
It's not me! I hate it! I want to write trilogies, like you
did ! I want a chorus of fifty! You think I'm not dying to take
over the Superbowl, topple governments, bring down the old brute
gods and raise my own new ones--?
Enough! (The god zaps the PLAYWRIGHT, dumps him in trunk)
Sorry, Rip. I wish I'd thought to use my earthquake. You've never
really seen my earthquake.
Better not to waste it on a dungbeetle.
It may not work any more.
Never mind. There may be nothing left but dungbeetles. Lead on,
Eternal One. Let's have a cup or two of forgetfulness, shall we?
I'm feeling very old, and somehow smaller.