A Play in One Act
ROY BEAN, judge
TODD ZUNIGA, defendant
BEN MATLOCK; CHICO MARX, defense lawyers
HAMILTON BURGER, prosecutor
BOB KRONBAUER, literary juror
SHANE KOYCZAN, performance juror
MICHAEL ROBERTS, intangibles juror
MEGHAN MURPHY SUSZYNSKI; JAMIE MILLARD; REGAN SMITH
BAILIFF: Hear ye! Hear ye! Court is in session. The People Versus Literary Death Match. Drinking is optional.
BAILIFF: Judge Roy Bean presiding.
ROY BEAN: (Enters. Slaps pistol on desk.) Opening statement, Burger. Do you have anything to say before we find you guilty?
HAMILTON BURGER: What? Your Honour, I'm the prosecutor. I have no wish to make an opening statement. I'll allow the creator, perpetrators and seals of this mushrooming abomination to self-administer the poison.
ROY BEAN: Got any money?
HAMILTON BURGER: No.
ROY BEAN: Matlock, you want to say anything?
BEN MATLOCK: I do indeed, Your Honour. I'd like to call to the stand the defendant Todd Zuniga.
BAILIFF: Do you promise to tell the truth, most of the truth, or a conning verisimilitude thereof, so help you God or Goddess?
TODD ZUNIGA: More or less.
BEN MATLOCK: Mr. Zuniga, you've been charged with aiding and abetting the murder of literature, worldwide. How do you plead?
TODD ZUNIGA: Insanity.
ROY BEAN: Case closed. Defendant not guilty by means of insanity.
TODD ZUNIGA: No! The charge is insane. Not guilty.
BEN MATLOCK: Please explain the genesis of your idea for the Literary Death Match.
TODD ZUNIGA: It was a response to readings in general, which went, I started to notice as a person who went to three or four a week, this way: there'd be three readers, and one would be race-to-the-bookstore excellent, one would be so self-indulgent they'd go seven minutes over the limit, and one would read a "story", a.k.a. blog post, they slapdashed earlier that afternoon. Or we'd go to a reading with comedians, and some poor sap had to follow a hilarious stand-up with a memoir excerpt about his sister passing away. We wanted every reader to be great, to keep them within a time limit (I secretly believe that audience attention starts to wander at six minutes, can hold until seven, and largely evaporates at eight -- our time limit is seven minutes). And we wanted the comedic elements to have context, to blend into the show in a sensible manner.
BEN MATLOCK: What was the initial event like?
TODD ZUNIGA: The place was packed. We couldn't believe it. And we didn't know everyone -- which was the point: to get people outside the immediately literary world to come and enjoy literary things.
ROY BEAN: That'll be enough tongue-wagging, young man. Jurors? Who wants a go?
BOB KRONBAUER: This is too awesome!!!
GALLERY: (Cheers, clapping.)
SHANE KOYCZAN: We are the true north strong and free.
GALLERY: (Louder cheers.)
MICHAEL ROBERTS: There is no strong guiding aesthetic. Everything is for the moment.
GALLERY: (Shouts, the Wave.)
HAMILTON BURGER: MR. Zuniga, I don't want to characterize you as a cheerful cynic or as a literary equivalent to one of ... to steal Timon's phrase ... Mr. Shakespeare?
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: (offstage.) Time's flies.
HAMILTON BURGER: Thank you. (Turns back to Zuniga.) But isn't this ruse just lo-cal/ so-Cal entertainment for the text-messaging set?
TODD ZUNIGA: Literature, and hearing it, is at the centre of what we do. (A water balloon sails over his head and breaks across the photo-imprisoned face of Queen Elizabeth.)
GALLERY: (Laughs and titters.)
HAMILTON BURGER: Excuse me? I must have misheard. Could you repeat or rephrase that for the court, please?
TODD ZUNIGA: The most important aspect of the entire show is to showcase literature.
HAMILTON BURGER: We'll get to the extracurricular dominance later, but for now I'd like to direct everyone's attention to this you tube video of a Mr. Dan Lichtenberg reading an extract of his to a Literary Death Match audience. Please dim the lights, clerk, and if I could press upon the audience to refrain from cell phone usage and hitting on their immediate neighbours.
DAN LICHTENBERG: (Walking in circles, repeatedly high-stepping over mic chord.) We fucked. It was all right. And then I told her we had to stop doing this to ourselves. "Doing what to ourselves?", Jenny asked. "You know." "No, what? Fucking? Fucking ourselves?" "Yeah, exactly." And then she kept asking me what the hell I was talking about. I think she knew it was over but she stayed there in bed for awhile and we smoked cigarettes even though I told her I didn't like smoking in the house because as soon as I made a habit of smoking in the house I'd be admitting to myself that I had an addiction on my hands, in my hands, in everyone's hands.
HAMILTON BURGER: This is the first 90 seconds of the six minute skit, or reading. The performance concludes, with no suggestion of irony: "To hell with diction. Sometimes word choice didn't mean shit." I'll remind the jurors that Mr. Zuniga, in his first response, "wanted every reader to be great". If what we just witnessed was greatness, what superlatives remain for Alexander? No further questions at this time, Your Honour.
ROY BEAN: Thank God. I need a nap. Court adjourned till two p.m.
GALLERY: (Schmoozing, drinking.)
BAILIFF: All rise for --
ROY BEAN: (Eyes make-out session on gallery bench.) Don't you have parents or the like? Next witness, Matlock.
BEN MATLOCK: I call Sean Cranbury to the box. While we wait, I'd like some feedback from the jurors on Dan Lichtenberg's art.
BOB KRONBAUER: You can't not fall in love with that magic.
SHANE KOYCZAN: An experiment going right for a change with influences that range from A to Zed.
GALLERY: (Wild cheers.)
MICHAEL ROBERTS: We stood there admiring the khaki mesh cotton hoodie and drop-crotch tweed track trousers.
BEN MATLOCK: Mr. Cranbury, you organized the Vancouver chapter of Literary Death Match. You've expressed enthusiasm for the event. Could you elaborate?
SEAN CRANBURY: Vancouver has some of the most talented writers in the world, so this gives us a chance to put ourselves on the map internationally. What I really want to do with these events is grow the community and give people a chance to be cool and not be lame and literary, because that shit is just so old and nobody cares.
GALLERY: (Deafening cheers.)
HAMILTON BURGER: Objection, Your Honour. The audience is trying to influence the verdict. (Ducks a flying cupcake.)
ROY BEAN: Don't fret on it. I wouldn't waste my bullets on them, let alone my seed.
HAMILTON BURGER: Mr. Cranbury, how would you advertize the Death Match in a catchy, concise manner?
SEAN CRANBURY: The tag line should be -- "Come meet some attractive, intelligent, semi-drunk people."
HAMILTON BURGER: Interesting. Yet you've given a glancing, half-hearted acceptance of the Vancouver International Writers Festivals, where the dinosaurs do roam. Tough words -- "lame and literary" -- but I don't hear any specific names. You've mentioned Toronto in this context -- could they be the enemy?
SEAN CRANBURY: There's a distance in Vancouver from the hive of Toronto's -- which is good -- but we're very different here than Toronto.
HAMILTON BURGER: "Very different". "Which is good". Thanks for the specificity. I wonder what this "very different" amounts to. Lots of difference within Toronto. And lots of similarity between Vancouver and Toronto. In any event, you've learned well from Literary Death Match. The Vancouver Writers' Series had Sonnet L'Abbe doing push-ups while labouring through a poem, and the twelve-pack were kept close to the preferred six minutes, as well.
BEN MATLOCK: Objection, Judge. Is there a question in any of this?
ROY BEAN: You just asked one. Who's got the hooch? There's another one. Are you through flapping your gums, prosecutor? And another.
HAMILTON BURGER: Fair enough. Brevity is ... is ... well, it's my turn for first dibs on questioning. I call William Shakespeare.
BAILIFF: Do you promise to tell the truth, and then some?
ROY BEAN: Get my Bible.
BAILIFF: Can't find it, Your Worship. This 1879 Texas Revised Statutes book do?
ROY BEAN: Proceed.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: I do.
ROY BEAN: This ain't no wedding, and that's a law book, not a salt lick.
HAMILTON BURGER: Help me out, Mr. Shakespeare.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: Brevity is the soul of wit.
ROY BEAN: Mark that well, Mr. Burger. Now I'm hungry.
ROY BEAN: I am bending over backwards to be fair. Shut the hell up.
HAMILTON BURGER: What do you make of the Literary Death Match?
BEN MATLOCK: Is this an Avon calling?
GALLERY: (Wild laughter.)
ROY BEAN: (Snores.)
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: Writing and reading, let that appear when there is no need of such vanity.
HAMILTON BURGER: But you were a hands on author and performer. Have you no sympathy for the entertainment focus of the event?
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: Shall we their fond pageant see? Lord, what fools these mortals be.
HAMILTON BURGER: Over to you, Defense.
BEN MATLOCK: Is it all vanity, Mr. Shakespeare? Surely there is a genuine kernel of connection desired, at least by some?
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.
BEN MATLOCK: Can the words not remain in the hearts of the audience?
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: Go to your bosom, knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know.
BEN MATLOCK: Nothing to be salvaged, then?
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
BEN MATLOCK: Your Honour, this is outrageous!
ROY BEAN: (Awakes with a start.) I agree. Another dead soldier. Damn good phalanx here. And I'm coming after you, Bailiff.
ROY BEAN: Top cupboard! Bourbon's behind the liniment.
BEN MATLOCK: No, no, Your Honour. I mean, the prosecution has trotted out a reverential quote machine. This is nothing more than an animatronic wax figure.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: If you prick us, do we not bleed?
HAMILTON BURGER: James Joyce to the stand.
BAILIFF: Do you promise on this Bible to state the truth, the whole ... ah, forget it.
HAMILTON BURGER: Mr. Joyce, your insights concerning the Death Match festivities.
JAMES JOYCE: What do they go about for only getting themselves and their poetry laughed at?
HAMILTON BURGER: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge of the organizers?
JAMES JOYCE: The difficulties of the selection of appropriate music and humorous allusions from Everybody's Book Of Jokes (1000 pages and a laugh in every one).
BET MATLOCK: Jurors, I'd like your pronouncements on the performative farce from these wired wind-ups.
BOB KRONBAUER: Okay, seriously ... my favourites performing free. Full steam ahead!
SHANE KOYCZAN: That's where we used to be at.
GALLERY: (Ooohs, aaahs.)
MICHAEL ROBERTS: A multicoloured collage, clothes made from odd pieces of unrelated material, such as wool with leather or lame, chiffon, and stretch jersey combined in one outfit. Also, British heritage items such as green Wellington boots, eccentric floral dresses, flat caps, kilts, all accompanied by funny hats or headpieces.
BEN MATLOCK: The defense introduces Sara Bynoe into the record. Ms. Bynoe, how do you think the general book-inclined public views non- Literary Death Match readings?
SARA BYNOE: Hoity-toity, the equivalent of what people think of going to the symphony.
BEN MATLOCK: Over to Mr. Burger.
HAMILTON BURGER: Interesting characterization. I've met engaged, fascinating old people and curious, open-minded young people at both symphonic and chamber concerts. Joke ideas like 'Say Wha? Readings of Deliciously Rotten Writing' use verbatim text just as your words are being used here. What's your aim when performing in Literary Death Match and Say Wha? ?
SARA BYNOE: Learning to love my Roman nose is a struggle. I am lucky to have people in my life who tell me that beyond my unique nose I have other distinguishing features; my eyes, my smile, my curves, and my lady tah tahs (thanks boys).
HAMILTON BURGER: As the Bard said, "no need of such vanity", isn't that the 800 pound you-know-what in the room?
CHICO MARX: Your Honour, that's irrelevant.
HAMILTON BURGER: Julie Wilson next.
BAILIFF: Do you --
ROY BEAN: She does. Man and wife. Get on with it.
HAMILTON BURGER: Ms. Wilson, Todd Zuniga suggests that Death Match performers "risk being unfunny". How do you see that in the light of the event's actual ethos?
JULIE WILSON: One of the contenders wrote to ask if it would be a problem to read something sad. I replied, "You're not a sad person, so it won't be a sad reading."
HAMILTON BURGER: I see, then. Sadness is OK as a tone as long as the author doesn't in any way identify with the sadness, making for an uncool reaction amongst the audience. The reflexive emotions have to be event sanctioned, and the author-reader has to be admired even more so than his or her words. Are those fair comments?
JULIE WILSON: I had no clue who the patrons were. Yet they were being introduced to authors I felt I knew quite intimately. And they all fell in love.
HAMILTON BURGER: Trevor Cole, please. Your first novel is dominated by a vain, self-obsessed protagonist, an actor, Norman Bray. What do you have your character say while he watches a histrionic cooking show on TV?
TREVOR COLE: It's awful. But it's fascinating.
HAMILTON BURGER: Miriam Waddington to the box. Ms. Waddington, try, if you can, to get inside the head of the author-performer just before and during one of these seven minute sprints. What question might emerge from his or her curiosity?
MIRIAM WADDINGTON: Who are those giant spectators who chopped down the summer and now fill the arena with loud expectation?
GALLERY: (phone texts, whispers.)
HAMILTON BURGER: And what might the thought be, post-reading?
MIRIAM WADDINGTON: There my defeated choirs sing in broken keys of all the doors I forced by solar acts of love.
HAMILTON BURGER: Thank you. Mr. Matlock.
BEN MATLOCK: With all due respect, Ms. Waddington, metaphors can cover a lot of impressive ground through false union. One person's profound conclusion is another's inconsequential nightmare. The sun rises, we awake, and get on with our lives, more or less with yesterday's convictions. Aren't you reaching for an unnecessary and overdramatic meaning?
MIRIAM WADDINGTON: Under the dawn of city skies moves the sun in presaged course, smoothing out the cunning lies that hide the evil at the source. I sense the evil at the source now at this golden point of noon, the misdirected social force will grind me also, and too soon.
HAMILTON BURGER: I'd like to call Bob Shea to the stand. Mr. Shea, you write books for kids, yes?
BOB SHEA: That's right.
HAMILTON BURGER: Todd Zuniga says that your performance during the Texas --
ROY BEAN: Vinegaroon way?
HAMILTON BURGER: -- Literary Death Match was one of the three best and most popular -- best and popular being mutual terms here -- in its five year history. Your last line garnered the loudest, longest laughs. Would you repeat them here for the court, please?
BOB SHEA: Selling out wins!
BEN MATLOCK: Tarnation! Judge, this is out of all context.
HAMILTON BURGER: Is it? The video can be googled. The court of public opinion can weigh in after viewing it. The tongue is lodged only part way in the cheek, no firm stance can be deduced, but the implications for adults or children are clear. The real winner is Bob Shea because pitched to kids, it's a cute, energetic book of happy dinosaurs. Pitched to adults, it's a typical hey-I'm-a-loser-and-that's-cool characterization -- faintly cyncial, completely sympathetic -- which flatters the adult who, after all, has to buy the book and who is then motivated to read it. Kid likes the energy in book and adult reader, begs Daddy or Mommy for more, and the industry is created through cynical, crafty research.
BEN MATLOCK: I'd like to call on Meghan Murphy Suszynski, Jamie Millard, and Regan Smith. Ladies, your assessment of the particular show you attended.
MEGHAN MURPHY SUSZYNSKI, JAMIE MILLARD, REGAN SMITH: (Together.) Let us pay homage to the celebrities who made this possible, and who also made us feel extraordinarily cool when they came to dinner with us after the show.
HAMILTON BURGER: Alfred Bester. Impressions, sir?
ALFRED BESTER: I decided to sell my soul to the Devil, but the problem was how to find him. I was stumped, so I did the obvious thing: I called Celebrity Service.
HAMILTON BURGER: Nathanael West. Mr. West, Todd Zuniga likes to boast of the number of bums in seats at his creation. One hundred, two hundred. I believe a certain Mr. Springer, indeed a not-long-past Mr. Falwell, could promote numbers dwarfing that, and in the former case, the subjects were the same: sex and humour, the formula explicitly put forward by Zuniga. What are your thoughts on crowds, conformity, and suggestion?
NATHANAEL WEST: They were marching behind his banner in a great unified front of screwballs and screwboxes to purify the land. No longer bored, they sang and danced joyously in the red light of the flames.
BEN MATLOCK: Your Honour, I'm checking my roster. Since there are no more witnesses, I'd like to call my defendant to the stand a final time. Now then, Mr. Zuniga, one charge against the Literary Death Match is that it's all fun and games, that as long as one at the event meets another and gets laid, or failing that, gets a few good laughs, all's well. But you've insisted on the literary aspect and purpose of the show. Please elaborate.
TODD ZUNIGA: First off -- Vancouver, I challenge you to be a little more drunk than Toronto.
GALLERY: (Wild, sustained cheers.)
TODD ZUNIGA: I do believe there's a way to put literature back into the centre of the pop culture conversation, and our way of pushing it in that direction is to seamlessly marry literature and comedy at an event that very much feels like poetry.
BEN MATLOCK: You run Opium magazine. And you put these notions to work in the print medium. How so?
TODD ZUNIGA: We have an estimated reading time at the top of every page so if someone sees a poem with a :57, they could say, "Hey, I've got a minute." If you make the readers flip the pages fast, it makes them feel like they're getting something done. It's also a gateway to short stories and novels.
BEN MATLOCK: That's all, Your Honour.
HAMILTON BURGER: Mr. Matlock has performed my work for me. The defendant can step down. Judge and jurors, Mr. Zuniga has proudly stated that literature is at the heart of Literary Death Match, yet the party atmosphere at these events reaches its climactic impulse during the final furlong when bricks are thrown at pictures of famous authors, charades are performed, books are slam-dunked through basketball hoops, there's musical chairs, trivial pursuit challenges, and resurrecting Jesus -- photos of Mel Gibson on one side, Willem Defoe on the
other -- a notch at a time depending on whether or not a Cadbury egg knocks over a contestant's book. In Vancouver, Sean Cranbury came up with the brilliant idea of dividing the audience into opposing sides, with a name-that- tune finale. Just a note -- Vancouver TheatreSports did that over 30 years ago, and with real comedians and comediennes at the helm, so I'm not sure how
cutting edge it really is. As for the seven minute time limit, I can only speak for myself. If an author is on fire, literarily speaking, I have no concept of time, and were I to experience that reader getting pelted by a nerf dart as an ever so cute winking aside to the audience in order to terminate the reading, I'd then feel inclined to shoot my own hellebore-spiked arrow at the original assailant. Mr. Zuniga believes his creation is a gateway for readers who think other literary events boring. But literature is derided at every turn in the Death Match. There are some very good authors gracing the event, but they're shackled by the procedure. If new observers of literature learn anything there, it's that one reader's pretty much like the next, though those dreaming of fucking Benjamin Franklin, the belly fat making strange flapping noises against the narrator's flesh, or sci-fi porn rants from the P.O.V. of a horny woman in an
aquarium, often help scoop the deciding votes. Those observers of literature -- ghastly term -- anyone I've spoken to about literary influences are firm: a love for this endlessly fascinating obsession begins when young, but in the minority of cases when the bite occurs later -- as a young adult -- it originates through grace, fortuitous or hard-wired. If Mr. Zuniga wants to use the gateway metaphor, the Death Match would be marijuana, but what would be crack for those people? Just as that scare tactic is overblown, so too is any idealistic notion that seeing or listening to Dan Lichtenberg will lead to anything more lastingly mind-altering. The best readings I've attended have had no whistles or bells -- none. A usually -- not always -- small audience has shown up, been attentive, and I, at least, have lost track of time --
BEN MATLOCK: Your Honour, surely he's gone past the limit.
ROY BEAN: (Puts down newspaper.) Damn right.
ROY BEAN: Jurors. Wrap up. Shoot.
BOB KRONBAUER: Put yourself in the right place at the right time with the right credentials and experience and you are bound to "click" into some good fortune.
SHANE KOYCZAN: The design is what makes us more than the sum total of our history.
MICHAEL ROBERTS: Epaulettes, eye-popping camouflage, combat boots, brass buttons, peacoats, parkas, battle-dress blousons, flying jackets, military great coats -- even the long johns and skivvies traditionally worn under all of the above -- were paraded up and down, uber-masculine choices.
GALLERY: (And so on.)
ROY BEAN: Mr. Burger, it is the judgement of this court that you are hereby tried and convicted of illegally and unlawfully committing certain grave offenses against the peace and dignity of literature, particularly in my bailiwick. I fine you two dollars. Then get the hell out of here and never show yourself in this court again. That's my rulin'.
GALLERY: (Wild cheers, mosh dives, mooning, ostentatious handshakes.)
ROY BEAN: Bar is open.