Alexandria: a hopeless play

Alexandria: a hopeless play

Cast of Characters

NARRATOR:  	     Gender doesn’t matter. Modern clothing.	           

THE LIBRARIANS:     All in vaguely Greek-style garb, may be 				          bearded. Untidy, barefooted, somewhat 							ravaged looking. 

ZENODOTUS	A bit pedantic.	

CALLIMACHUS   Very close to insane.


ERASTOSTHENES	 More expansive than the others, even 		  				 cheerful


ARISTARCHUS	 Somewhat vague. Even untidier than the 						 others.

HYPATIA:	           Supernaturally calm, reserved. Her garment       				 is blood-stained.  

No curtain. No flats or backdrops, just the rawness backstage.  The floor is covered with torn, broken books and/or scrolls--so many that the characters must kick them aside as they enter, one by one.

Each Librarian enters from stage Left as his name is called by the Narrator, steps to the very edge of the stage, and addresses the audience. When he has finished, he wanders back among the mess of papers and fiddles around among them, ineffectually.

(Enters slowly, shuffling through the books, 
stopping occasionally to pick up a fragment and read it, sometimes aloud, ad lib.  
To center stage:  
looks at the audience in silence 
for an uncomfortably long time.)

Things happen. Despite what historians unearth, it’s not possible to know exactly what happened.Despite what the prophets and pundits say, it is not possible to know what will happen, or what would have happened. May I present to you, for example,  the librarians of Alexandria? We will never know what was lost when that great library was destroyed. Would it have saved us? It is foolish to hypothesize. And yet—-perhaps—-can we regard its loss as a warning? What are we losing now? In any case, I shall introduce you to the librarians. They have their opinions. First:  Zenodotus of Ephesus, grammarian. 

You, librarians! Hear me! Are you listening? I was the first to alphabetize, label, and weed—-no doubt occupations with which you all are familiar. Like myself, you must constantly decide: What is important now? What must be saved and catalogued? What will you discard? You never know what they might want someday. You never know what some scholar will require,if not now, a hundred years from now, a thousand years from now. But, my fellow librarians, you never know what they will burn. No matter what you do, no matter how careful you are, you do not know if it will last. Oh, my work, my work. . . and all of it lost! May your great work never be lost!

And here is Callimachus, father of bibliography.  

Half a million books! One hundred and twenty volumes of catalogue alone. Catalogue! Catalogue! Lost. All, all lost.  
(He is overcome by emotion, throws himself on the floor, and continues to weep—mostly quietly—through to the end.)

  (Regarding Callimachus with resignation.)  
Ah, well. It can’t be helped, I suppose. There’s a kind of obsession here. Next, Apollonius who wrote Argonautica in the old and epic style and was mocked from the city in shame. It is highly unlikely that this sort of thing would happen today.

(To the Narrator.)
Do not be so sure, my friend. 
(To the audience.)
Like you, we were not strangers to scandal and gossip, to exaggeration, the power of untruth. Perhaps among you now, a poet would not be physically driven from a city for rhyming poetry. And yet, and yet. . among you, even now, I hear that “this sort of thing” still happens all the time. Mocking and shame are still rampant. Reputations rise and fall with the gossip of the day, with the opinions of the learned critics and, I hear, the opinions of the ignorant masses. Human nature, always, always, is the stuff of epic. The library might be gone, but some things are, shall we say, indestructible.

(Pause. Opens mouth to speak, but decides not to.)  
Now Eratosthenes, whom Strabo called “a mathematician among geographers and a geographer among mathematicians.” Who measured Earth and its tilt from where he stood, who invented leapday, who mapped the whole known world, invented the armillary sphere, who wrote poetry and chronologies, who criticized Aristotle. . . 

(Enters during the narration and interrupts with a gesture.)  
Aristotle and the foolishness of racial purity! There’s good and bad in everyone, and the world—-Ah! The great globe! It gets smaller all the time. How I wish I’d lived into your century! And time itself gets smaller, no matter the number of days. Maybe you find my accomplishments impressive, but
They called me “Beta”, nonetheless, since I was always second best.
So much to discover, so much to learn, so much—-So many doors were opening then, in Alexandria. So many doors still opening. Ah!

Well then. Now here’s Aristophanes, who invented punctuation.   

And still the comma bears the name I gave. I like that. “Comma. Comma. Comma.” Cut-off piece. To show you where to breathe. Don’t forget to breathe, my friends.

I’ll make a note. Now I present Aristarchus, original critic, editor of Homeric poetry, 
(Sotto voce.)
fusspot. . .

Ah yes, that would be I. So much of Homer as handed down, well, let me say that it was doubtful. Not up to the standard. It took a careful eye and a discerning ear to sort things out and arrange them properly. Everything correct, everything in its place, you see. And so I am the original aristarch. And thus, my name lives on.  

(Gestures toward the Librarians who are picking through the papers.)
So. Behold the Librarians.

(Look up and organize into a circle, somewhat clumsily and randomly, and join hands—all except Callimachus who is still on the floor—and begin to circle around the Narrator. Individual librarians break out of the chanting rhythm to say their lines.) 

In ten great halls with marble walls 
amid gardens and fountains we walked.  
The Muses were our mistresses.  
We ached to open, burned to know.   
Our eager hands unrolled the scrolls.

The Book of Manetho written by Seshat in the Hall of Heliopolis on the sacred tree.  

The History of Babylon in Berossos’s own hand.  

Acts of the Greeks and Barbarians under the Tyrian Kings.

Inscriptions from the Phoenician pillars of the sun. 

(Enters, menacing.) 
Nothing, of course, by Hypatia. Let’s not forget her.

(The Librarians stop and break the circle. The Narrator and the Librarians—except Callimachus— cluster together and watch her, wary and awkward.)

You weren’t exactly a Librarian. . . .

Oh, that’s what you think. What does that mean, “librarian”? I kept things, sorted things, discovered things, lost things. I lost my life, but that did not matter. In the long history of all things, that did not matter. Loss does not matter.

(Murmuring ad lib to one another.) 
Lost things, kept things, sorted, what matters? barbarians. . )

(Her quiet voice over them, silencing them.
Addressing audience from the very edge of the stage.)  
For a little while, here, the world was full of light. Then it was dark. Not the soft dark of night, nor the comforting dark of the tomb, but a darkness of mind—-a flat, cold dark. A darkness of absolute, a darkness of certainty. Nothing reflecting, nothing penetrating, nothing to breathe but dust. Instead of questioning, silencing. Instead of learning, burning. Instead of conversing, murdering. Instead of wonder, fear. And on it goes, and on it goes. Light to dark and back again. But always, always, there is somewhere a glimmer. Always a root that will sprout up green. I think your world is dark now. And you are losing things. Always, always losing things. But is there still light? I think so. Looking down into your times, I see lamplight here and there. Even a little light keeps the darkness from being complete. A question, an exploration, a new word, a new work of art, a laugh, an act of kindness. So yes, here in Alexandria, we lost more than you know. But that is not your concern. What was lost is not your concern at all. Look to what is. Keep what you can and keep going. Keep your lamps alight.
(She turns and exits.) 

(As the Narrator begins the next speech, 
the Librarians join hands—
all except Callimachus who is still on the floor crying—
and begin a stately circle dance around the Narrator.)

(A pause, watches Hypatia exit.)  
Well, maybe. Maybe what we lost doesn’t matter after all. Maybe it’s all about what we do now. But we don’t know. We’ll never know. That’s the problem. That’s the point. We’ll never know what was lost. . .The past. . . the way things were. . .We don’t know what’s going to matter. We don’t know what matters now. . .
(Repeats, ad lib, while the Librarians dance and chant, 
words rising above and around the chanting.)

(Chanting. Breaking into ad.lib.)
The barbarians are still at your gates.
Still, your libraries burn.
Still, the wisdoms are lost.
Beware, beware, beware, beware. . . 
(After awhile,the Librarians break the circle and advance on the audience, stopping at the edge of the stage. Sudden silence.)

Keep your lamps alight.

(Librarians turn, exuent, still chanting. Callimachus remains, sobbing on the floor. The Narrator stands still for a moment, then runs off. The curtain falls.)


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