Let me introduce you to our one-act play and the dramatic personæ.
There is a peacock in all his splendor, hereafter referred to as “Mr. Dandy.” And then, there’s “Billy,” a sheep who imagines himself a goat. And then, an ordinary housefly fly called “Tsetse” for its peskiness extraordinaire. And finally, there’s a mongrel of sorts, nicknamed “Alien.” He had stumbled into the compound unannounced, from whence no one knows.
By way of preface, our characters will require a prompter lest the play degenerates into a sequence of unruly monologues, and that’s where yours truly comes in.
In keeping with the literary tradition, any resemblance to a real person or persons is strictly coincidental.
The play concerns “Tactician,” the compound commander, a gossipmonger called “Troublemaker,” and a little piglet named “Squealer.”
Scene of action: the compound auditorium.
It’s a monthly meeting to discuss community affairs. The hall is half-full. Some are barely attentive, others just dozing off.
Mr. Dandy decides to energize the audience by addressing a matter of vital importance.
MR. DANDY: I don’t know about y’all, but there are nasty rumors circulating about — rumors concerning the unjust treatment of the Squealer at the hands of the compound authorities. I want to put them to rest. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing to discuss. The Squealer broke the law, and that’s all there’s to it. If you don’t want to do time, don’t do the crime!
(“Ey ey.” Mr. Dandy’s oration is punctuated with isolated sounds of approval from disparate parts of the hall, Mr. Dandy’s diehard supporters. The rest, shaken from the usual lethargy which accompanies the monthly meetings, remain unmoved.)
More to enliven the debate than to challenge Mr. Dandy’s claims, the Prompter steps in.
THE PROMPTER: So what? Laws are made to be broken, especially when they’re unjust.
Remember when we’ve all gone on strike because of reduced food rations and inhumane working conditions? That was right after the Horse collapsed from sheer exhaustion. If it weren’t for that, you’d still be an ordinary chicken, pecking your way into oblivion, scrounging for grains to make it into the next day and then the next — always at the mercy of your master-feeder. There’d be no luster to your feathers, no pride which comes so naturally to you.
Or what if we were to complain about some of the animals mistreated because they looked “queer,” too exotic for ordinary taste? Have you forgotten?
(There is some stirring in the crowd, uneasy shifting of feet and body parts, the fluttering of wings, a growing awareness of a confrontation ahead, an unusual occurrence at these gatherings. Mr. Dandy’s supporters don’t utter a sound. They wait to see in which direction the argument is going.)
MR. DANDY: Of course I haven’t forgotten. But this law is different because it concerns the well-being of our entire community.
It provides for our safety and internal security. It’s for the benefit of all of us, and anyone who breaks it is guilty as charged. Your analogy is ridiculous.
(The peanut gallery shows further signs of awakening. There is growing restlessness in the air. Now they know a confrontation is on. Mr. Dandy’s loyalists continue to bide their time.)
OK, imprison him if you must so long as we can guarantee him a speedy trial, but why subject him to inhumane conditions, like denying him the mud to wallow in or the customary darkness?
For a piglet like Squealer, it’s cruel and unusual punishment. I call it torture. You know full well that the idea behind it is to get to the Troublemaker, to implicate him in a crime against the compound. So why do you condone the mistreatment of Squealer in the name of what you call the greater good? In particular, why do you condone the actions of the Tactician and his goon squad, the Doberman Pinschers whom you yourself so fear? Why do you favor Tactician’s iron rule after we’ve been promised a gentler, kinder compound?
That’s why we deposed Napoleon the Tyrant, remember? Because we all believed, the Tactician had assured us, things would be different.
(Mr. Dandy shows signs of dismay. He didn’t expect a rebuttal, let alone a challenge to his well-crafted argument. All peacocks are fastidious by nature, but Mr. Dandy was the king of the roost. His command of facts was legendary, his opinions rarely if ever questioned. Many animals have traveled far and wide from distant farms and compounds to seek his advice. His color was turning purple. He was beginning to look like a turkey.)
MR. DANDY: I’m not all that certain about Troublemaker. From what I’ve heard, he’s a shifty critter, a sleaze bag. Has been known to travel from compound to compound, spreading rumors and innuendos. Many animals have already got in trouble because of his irresponsible behavior, and many more will, count on that.
Besides, imagine the gall! He doesn’t as much as lift a finger towards his upkeep, expects other animals to feed him and clothe him while he’s galivanting about from compound to compound, spreading dangerous ideas. And then, there are tales of sexual impropriety!
THE PROMPTER: What has this got to do with the price of chicken feed? We’re not here to discuss Troublemaker’s personal life or character, only the disclosures. Aren’t we all better off because knowing the Tactician was in cahoots with the commanders of compounds we haven’t even heard of to strengthen home rule and thwart all potential attacks by the Dissenters?
We’ve been supporting tyrants like Napoleon, whom we deposed for the very crimes we now condone. Doesn’t it concern you that the Tactician – a real chameleon he is, isn’t he? – is implicated in supporting the very regimes against which we have rebelled? Don’t you care that the animals in other compounds suffer the very same indignities that we have once suffered?
You speak of dangerous ideas. Dangerous to whom? To us or to the Tactician and all he represents?
MR. DANDY: You’re putting words in my mouth. I believe I made it clear I’m ambivalent about this whole thing. Granted, some good may come from the Troublemaker’s activities. Still, some innocents may suffer, perhaps even lose their lives.
THE PROMPTER: You must be kidding! What innocents? No one is innocent when they promote a tyrannical rule, and that includes the Tactician as well.
You may take comfort in saying we all stand to benefit from a policy that elevates internal security above all else, even if it means supporting tyrannical regimes elsewhere. Well, try this one for size.
We deny the Squealer everyday creature comforts that we would extend even to a stranger. Simply because we want to implicate the Troublemaker for soliciting information rather than obtaining it for a song and bring him to justice on charges of terrorism and inciting insurrection? Meanwhile, we’re violating the very laws we have all sworn to uphold, laws concerning our very citizens, like the Squealer.
Don’t you see the contradiction here, Mr. Dandy? So yes, we’ve become the same militaristic regime many of us paid with our dear lives to overthrow.
The Tactician promised things would be better. “Hope & change” was his campaign slogan, and we elected him on the strength of it. Some change! Meanwhile, Mr. Dandy, your ambivalence speaks volumes.
(It was apparent that Mr. Dandy was in no condition to continue. He looked aimlessly about, trying to make eye contact with anyone and
everyone, hoping to elicit however little show of support, a nod here, a wink there, but to no avail. Even his loyal supporters avoided him like the plague. In total exasperation, he just flattered his wings and pecked at his feathers. The grooming was a ritual.)
Billy the Sheep couldn’t take it any longer. He couldn’t bear seeing his leader humiliated so. He rose from his seat and stepped up to the podium, demanding to be heard.
The chair acknowledged.
(For those of you who don’t know, Billy was only second to Mr. Dandy in his command of facts; his memory was reputed to be phenomenal, and his oratorical skills, second to none. He could go on to no end with his long-winded arguments and QEDs. To his partners in crime, it was music to their ears, but to his captive audience, anathema. The trouble with Billy, he was rarely, if ever, on point. He knew about football, though. He knew that offense was the best defense, and he perfected that skill to a T, even if it meant derailing the discussion beyond any recognition, which was more often than not. However, his greatest fault was that he imagined himself another Don Quixote fighting windmills and erecting strawmen in the most unlikely of places. He always blamed the opposition for any real or imaginary social ills, never the party in power. To Billy, the party in power never had enough power! The upshot was, Billy was an apologist par excellence, and Tactician was his hero. If the Tactician couldn’t get it done, it simply meant it couldn’t be done — not by a human, an animal, a vegetable, or a mineral. It was as simple as that. Which was the gist of Billy’s political philosophy: since the opposition was always formidable, the only obstacle to attaining true animal happiness the world over, “compromise” was the only way of getting anything done, and the results were never going to be perfect. And Tactician was the master of compromise, which is why Billy loved him so. In a nutshell, Billy was an utter conformist, which is why all the animals named him so, after a sheep that would be a goat. Only on those in his inner circle was this irony lost; to them, he was a real goat, a goat in sheep’s clothing, and an impeccable warrior besides.)
BILLY: I strongly object to your treatment of Mr. Dandy. You make it sound as though Mr. Dandy or anyone else was personally responsible for the state of affairs in this compound or elsewhere. Don’t forget. We’re still under the specter of the old rule by Napoleon the Tyrant.
The Tactician’s doing what’s humanly possible, more than what’s humanly possible, to get us over the hump, but it can’t be done overnight. Moreover, I resent your insinuation that I, Billy, condone a militaristic regime either here or elsewhere. I dare you to disprove me. Show me when and where have I ever supported imperialism. I dare you!
Still, the Tactician must have his reasons, and it’s not for us to inquire or question because we’re ignorant of all the facts. You have no idea the kind of opposition he faces day in and day out just to put oats on our table, fresh water in our trough, a straw roof over our heads. Remember, it was fixed last year for leaks. And you know as well as I: we weren’t attacked by hostile hordes of late. We’ve been able to sleep nights in relative peace and security, so there must be something he’s doing right. Admit it! Furthermore …
(Billy just had to be cut short. If he didn’t invent the art of filibuster, he was certainly the master. His diatribes could go on forever, and the audience, barely awoken from its dogmatic slumber, was showing clear signs of retiring for the rest of the night. Billy’s speeches, besides, were like an old hat, tailor-made for every conceivable occasion. If you heard one, you’ve heard them all.)
THE PROMPTER: Get a grip, Billy! No one has accused you of anything yet. Your name hasn’t even come up in the course of these proceedings. Check the minutes and see. But since we’re on topic, let me pose a perfectly innocent question, the same I posed to Mr. Dandy.
Since you’re so much against militaristic regimes as a matter of principle, why don’t you speak out against this one? If you’re so much opposed to enhanced interrogation techniques, why don’t you speak out on behalf of the Squealer, one of our own, and condemn the Tactician for making use of them, whatever his reasons?
If you object to the system of governance we’ve all experienced under Napoleon the Tyrant, why don’t you bellow from the mountaintops against this regime for continuing the very same policies we’ve all once abhorred?
It’s not I but your silence that condemns you, Billy. You had a perfect opportunity to break your silence once Mr. Dandy delivered his oratory. So what did you do? Instead of making a stand for the right, you took Mr. Dandy’s side. So forgive me, Billy, if I take your protestations with a grain of debris. It’s just words, and they sure sound empty and hollow.
(There was no sense letting Billy continue; it would be more of the same, endless variation on the same tired theme, and it would turn into a marathon besides. Even his supporters were getting antsy, eager to spare
him further humiliation and embarrassment. Billy was OK by them, and they all reveled in his oratory, but he had a nasty habit they all tried to cure him of — of putting a hoof in his mouth by way of finalizing his points. That, plus his sanctimonious airs that annoyed the living manure of those less disposed to overlook his antics!)
Tsetse the Fly demanded immediate attention, circling menacingly about the podium, making it clear to all concerned it was her turn to speak, and that was that. Since she was a pest the likes of which none have encountered before, dissent was out of the question. She was always liable to land on your face and park there, as was her habit, at the slightest sign of provocation. Her screeching, highly-undulated pitch was punishment enough without having to bear the repulsive presence.
TSETSE: What I’d like to know is how come the name “Tactician” took hold in the first place. If memory serves, it was Barnie the Ox who started the rumors, saying that because of his training and life experience in settling disputes, Hussy the Chameleon should be renamed “Tactitian.”
I objected from the start, saying it was asinine. It wasn’t a personal attack, mind you. And I just told Barnie in no uncertain terms that his were the words of a fool. To no avail, for the name had stuck. And this tells me most of you don’t care for the Chameleon, or you wouldn’t be referring to him by such a derogatory name.
So yes, Barnie had started this whole thing — pox on him! — and he made no pretense about it. He openly dislikes the Chameleon’s nature, always trying to blend in, said so himself. Barnie is a prejudiced critter, pure and simple, and you all fell for what surely is character assassination. And on what authority? The words of a dumb, simple-minded ox ‘n moron!
THE PROMPTER: Irrelevant, Tsetse! What difference does it make by what name we call him? You can call him. “Herr Fuhrer” for all I care or by any other name you desire. And what makes you think “Tactician” is a derogatory term? As far as I am concerned, it depicts the Chameleon’s MO to the tiniest detail. It’s an apt term as far as it goes, not at all derogatory except in your feverish imagination. You had better retire, Tsetse, before someone swats you. I can’t guarantee your safety while you insist on being your obnoxious self.
There was still the Alien to contend with, the last of Mr. Dandy’s circle of diehards. Alien had a permanent chip on his shoulder, his trademark. Easily irritable, ever on a lookout for insults from any & all quarters even when there were none, he was always prone to blowing his stack at the slightest of provocations, yelp all manner of obscenities, and over-the-top reprisals in vengeful retaliation. And then, he’d retire to his doghouse for days on end, swearing not to come out till hell freezes over.
He’d even refuse the food that was put in his bowl by some kind-hearted animal for fear he might stick to his word and starve himself to death. Invariably, a morsel or two were gone, and so was some of the freshwater procured for him in a separate container, barely touched but never quite to the same level to which it was initially filled.
All the animals monitored this slow, painstaking progress with intense interest, eyeing the quantity of food and drink consumed and the leftovers daily. Some were taking bets. As chance would have it, the Alien would always reemerge from his self-imposed confinement, but truth be told, one could never be sure. And every time he’d do so, ready to face the unfriendly and hostile world one more time, he was never the same, always diminished in some way. We all sensed that and felt sorry for him. We understood he was a victim of his own devices, a vicious circle he just couldn’t escape, like in the ballad Jimmy the Crow would rhapsodize about, that compound in some land down yonder where they’d first welcome you with open arms but then, once you checked in, wouldn’t let you leave.
We all sympathized, of course, but only to a point. We knew the Alien could be vindictive if he’d set his mind to it, even lucid at times, like an alcoholic experiencing a moment of clarity when sober. For which reason, we couldn’t altogether dismiss him.
ALIEN: Everybody knows I’m not from here, which is why I can be objective, more objective in any case than most of you. Well, let me tell you, for all its faults, this compound has all others beat by a country mile, and I’m not exaggerating either. You ought to witness first-hand the kind of indignities our lot suffers to this very day before you voice your disapproval. I know because I’ve been there, in more places you can imagine.
Why do you think I ended up here? To escape persecution and mistreatment, that’s why! In a way, you’re no different than the rest of them, picking on me because I’m not a pure breed, always finding fault, putting me down because my fur don’t shine, or because I look crazy-eyed or speak with an accent. Most of you despise me. I know it. But I’ve found some friends here, real compadres, in Mr. Dandy, Billy, and Tsetse. If it weren’t for them, I’d be out of here in a New York minute, looking for a kinder master. But they gave me the courage to stick through thick and thin, built me a doghouse, insulated me from your insults. I’ve got to be grateful.
THE PROMPTER: Get to the point, Alien. We’ve all heard your spiel about how we mistreat you and all that, and truth be told, we’re tired of it. Most of it, anyway, is in your own head, so get on with it, chump! Do you have anything to add to this conversation, or is it going to be just another one of your bitch sessions?
ALIEN: What I was going to say if you’d only let me, you don’t know your shit from Shinola. I’ve been around, so I know. This compound, though not perfect, is a far cry from anything I’ve ever encountered. You should consider yourselves lucky instead of badmouthing it. Sure, the Tactician has his faults. Who hasn’t? But for intents and purposes, he’d delivered a community that, by all standards, is only to be emulated, as perfect as can be. So don’t be telling me about my bitching or be putting me down. It’s you, most of you in fact, who are bitching.
Sorry to say, but I’m passionate about politics. It’s all personal to me. I live it and breathe it every moment of my waking life. How couldn’t I since my very presence and your resentment make it imperative that I stay on my toes, always on the defensive? Except for my friends here whom I mentioned, each of you poses an existential threat. In plain and simple terms, you just don’t like me. You treat me as though I had rabies.
THE PROMPTER: I won’t argue with you, Alien, nor will I try to cure you of your paranoia. I have no idea whence you came from, none of us do, and you haven’t been helpful either by keeping your vow of silence. I’ve no idea what you’ve gone through, so I won’t pass judgment on you.
Tell me this, however. You say you’re passionate about politics, that it’s all personal to you, and it’s all to the good. All of us should be because politics is important. Why didn’t you jump in, then, when Mr. Dandy, Billy, and Tsetse, all three of them, have gone out of their way to excuse the existing state of affairs? Why didn’t you bark in disapproval?
“Personal” means immediate to me, something that’s a matter of a pressing, if not ultimate, concern. Most everybody thinks so. What’s the cash value of your claim that politics is personal to you, that you live it and breathe it every moment of your miserable existence while you fail to register a protest when it counts?
It seems hypocritical to me, Alien, nothing but grandstanding. The only other conclusion I can draw, you don’t know your own mind.
There are definite goalposts in political science, the values we all hold dear and to which we aspire – equality under the law being one of them, a level playing field another. And I could add to this list at will. But none of them are subjective for being personal — for holding an emotional and deep-seated attachment to any of them. They’re as objective as the sun that shines on you, the food you eat, or the water you drink. There is no contradiction here, only commitment. So what say you? Are you for it, or are you against it?
(Alien came prepared. He looked through his briefcase and in no time produced a stack of documents, presumably testifying to his ever-progressive stance. He insisted we admit them as evidence. He said he had written extensively on the subject while he was under derision, which, in his estimation, was “most of the time.” He pleaded with the assembly,
saying he was no ordinary flunkie but a true revolutionary, always dogged about universal justice and freedom for all. Aside from yelping, it was his only passion in life.)
THE PROMPTER: All right, Alien, we’ll make it part of the record. For future reference, however, let me give you a word of advice. Action speaks louder than words. Loyalty to your friends is fine, but not when you keep silent while they utter half-truths or outright lies. Truth should be your only guide and master. You’ll find that when you act more on the strength of your convictions and worry less about pleasing everyone, you might be a happier puppy. Who knows, you might even regain some of the respect you crave for.
Billy was fidgeting in his seat, bellowing the usual baahs and guttural sounds which only a sheep can make, sounds which, out of courtesy to the ear, we can’t reproduce here, but which, nonetheless, conveyed unmistakable signs of derision and outright protest. Looking wildly on and about for a sympathetic ear, desperation in his eyes, it was apparent he wanted to be recognized.
Not even Billy should be reduced to such a miserable condition, so I consented.
THE PROMPTER: OK, Billy, what is it this time? Be quick, however, because we’re about to close. We still haven’t had our lousy supper.
BILLY: I just wanted to say you’re against the Tactician because of his pigmentation. And for the same reason, you’re against the Alien because he’s different. You’re all racists, and you should be ashamed of yourselves!
THE PROMPTER: We’ve heard it all before, Billy. Good night, everybody. This meeting is adjourned.