The gender of the soul

14 June 2010 | Drama, Fiction

Scenes from the play Kuningatar K / Queen C

Characters:
Christina, the Queen
Friend
The Queen Mother
Karl Gustav, the Count [Christina’s suitor, the King-to-be]
Descartes, philosopher
Official
Man
The King
Oxenstierna, Per Brahe
A choir of midwives

The play can be performed with six actors (3 female, 3 male). Other ways of dividing the roles are possible. All stage directions may be altered.

1. Prologue
The eels’ court

CHRISTINA
If eels had a court then a great female eel would sit in the centre and the little males would writhe about like seaweed around the throne. However they would not be envious of the queen, because they would know that if they swam up into rivers and lakes, into fresh waters, they themselves would gradually become females, great and heavy, and would be able to rule and close into their great embrace all the small little gentlemen. They just have to wait.
KARL GUSTAV
I don’t know. What I do know is that a great black eel, as thick as a rope, was pulled out of the well last night and the Queen looked at its silver stomach and its thrashing tail, but the eel looked the Queen in the eyes and in the heart and since then she has never been the same.

7. Descartes’ opera

DESCARTES
Descartes’ opera, someone will write it, hopefully me, only I’m so busy. The Birth of Peace, ah yes, a good name, x percent of the national budget goes towards military operations and they dare to grumble about the price of one libretto! The world’s greatest philosopher – that’s me – makes an appearance and the eyes of the world turn here, to this country, to this court, to this lady, to the queen, that one over there, who pays me well for these thoughts, which she cannot be bothered to listen to because she thinks up her own. Thinks, rides, swash-buckles, swears a lot and sleeps little and badly, walks about in men’s clothes and in men’s company and does not understand, what on earth is this woman that others constantly and persistently see in her.
I also thought – because that is what I do – I thought that if someone were to begin to change from a woman into a man, in the way that some lizards become male as they grow older, or that certain kinds of food can change the sex of a starfish – then at what point does the female cease being a woman and must then be called a man, when is the final moment and condition? Moreover, what is the state between femaleness and maleness? What is the being between femaleness and maleness? Is it then both, either or, or neither? Or perhaps some third, new category…
For a woman is not only a woman when she is giving birth or knitting or breast feeding or washing laundry, that femaleness is there in the way she walks, eats, speaks and picks her nose. Everyone who looks at Christina sees a woman, no matter how much she rides about and hits people or how loudly she swears.(The Queen Mother enters.)
QUEEN MOTHER
(laughing) Folk round here say that, once in her life, Christina fell off the back of a horse – on purpose – so that her skirt flew up over her ears and everybody could see what she’s got between her legs. She wanted to prove that everything is as it should be. Of course, I don’t like talking about things like this, just thought I’d mention it to clarify things. (Laughs.)
DESCARTES
Aha, aha.
QUEEN MOTHER
People say that, in her dreams, she sits in a little rowing boat in the middle of a lake and in a circle around the boat there are men floating on their backs, like the petals of a flower. Christina rides each of them in turn, always on a different one – there are plenty of them – and when she’s finished, the man dives and swims away never to be seen again. Can you believe it?
DESCARTES
Aha, aha. But, soon it will be winter and the lakes frozen. So I have heard.
QUEEN MOTHER
Don’t you listen to that, everybody lies round here.
Yesterday she was speaking to a woman who was a full head taller than her and twenty kilos heavier and said: let’s the two of us go in this carriage, it’ll balance things as we’re the same size, and no one said anything to contradict her. I ended up sitting on some back-seat.
Everyone looks up to her, because she’s her father’s daughter, but she thinks that she herself is just as tall and impressive. Dangerous, that’s what it is, deadly. Once she shot a hole through the wall of a house belonging to some moll of hers with a great big cannon – she was jealous – and then she lied about it and said that it wasn’t her, no, of course not. She thinks we’re stupid, even though any child from round here can work out what direction a cannonball’s going to fly. You should be careful of her, she’s a cold dangerous person.
DESCARTES
Aha, aha.
QUEEN MOTHER
You ask her, it’s high time, you ask her! I won’t bother you any longer, but ask her!

8. First conversation with the philosopher
The dance

DESCARTES
How do you reply? Will you marry?
CHRISTINA
Is my most important duty to mate?
DESCARTES
To produce royal heirs.
CHRISTINA
How many eggs does an eel lay at once?
DESCARTES
Four million.
CHRISTINA
How many children can a human have?
DESCARTES
It’s not worth worrying about it: it is enough that you produce one healthy, preferable male, heir. One is enough. Then you have fulfilled your duty, passed on the crown.
CHRISTINA
But what if I am like the eel?
DESCARTES
How so?
CHRISTINA
That one time is enough and then I disappear somewhere deep down and will never be seen again.
DESCARTES
The Queen cannot disappear so long as her realm does not disappear. And it is thanks to God, me, and several other institutions that this country will not disappear, rather it is growing and spreading throughout Europe. You will sit and wait and across far off seas, at their peak and ready to spawn, will come all the best males.
CHRISTINA
(sickened) I feel sick.
DESCARTES
How do you reply to the parliamentary challenge? Will you marry?
CHRISTINA
Say that the Queen accepted the challenge – like a man.
– – –

9. Wonder at the well
Night.

KARL GUSTAV
In the castle well there lives an eel, which will soon be a hundred years old. That is why the water is so clear and fresh, it eats all the frogs and larvae which get down there; strong as a rope, black and gleaming and its eyes shine out of the dark when you look down. Good drinking water, good washing water. (He drinks.)
I look at you as a man looks at a woman; with eyes, which make the skin glow and the hair gleam and the eyes sparkle puts a spring in your step; which make jokes get better and the voice soften and thoughts become clearer and ideas begin to fly and remain unflaggingly awake and laugh heartily and makes one able to do everything, which one never imagined being able to do or having the strength to do or being capable of doing or daring to do – I looked at you in that way, as a man looks at a woman.
CHRISTINA
When we went down to the well that night and the eel came up to the surface and looked at me, suddenly I understood that if I were able – if only I were able to look at you in the same way – I would look at you and you would look at me – it would be the first time that a man and a woman had ever looked at each other the way they were meant to.
It looked at me as one looks for the very first time, for the very first time, full of wonderment, afresh, without lust, anger, hatred, affection or ownership, without any predefined ideas, with the kind of look that left us both unconquerable and free.
(Splash)
KARL GUSTAV
Are you planning to marry a fish?
CHRISTINA
What?
KARL GUSTAV
I don’t like this. What did the eel do?
CHRISTINA
What? It sensed me.
KARL GUSTAV
What did you do?
CHRISTINA
The same. I sensed it. It touched me.
KARL GUSTAV
Yes? And then what? (Christina does not answer.)
But is that agreed then, that we… is it agreed that we’ll… when I come back?
CHRISTINA
Yes, yes.
KARL GUSTAV
Is it? That nothing will happen whilst I’m away?
CHRISTINA
No, nothing.
KARL GUSTAV
Look me in the eyes.
CHRISTINA
Yeah, yeah.
KARL GUSTAV
Why won’t you look at me?
CHRISTINA
Soon enough. (Exits.)
KARL GUSTAV
(Alone) It’s a drag having to be a baby-sitter to an adult. Why can’t she be interested in, say, the flight patterns of migratory birds, white-tailed eagles, that would be somehow more noble, more befitting a queen than thinking about a slimy fish. Of course, I don’t belittle the fact that the eel is one of the most important fish for our national economy, but that’s as far as it goes, it’s sufficient that it exists and that it arrives smoked on a plate.
There’s something in her family, something fishy about the whole Vaasa clan, and I don’t just mean the big goggle-eyes, but some inner quality. There was something fishy about her father’s death too. The king was dressed up in armour for so long that it was difficult to believe that inside there was a real person made of flesh and bones, whose blood flowed from an open wound in his side, like that of a fish flowing into its armour of scales in the hands of a skilled fishmonger, as the king lay naked on a clayey field dotted with sparse, dry blades of grass. Clouds, the clayey field, the grey weather and the red blood flowing from the king’s side like the blood of a fish from its cold flesh and those who saw it were compelled to find out whether it was cold like the blood of a fish.
Soon Christina will be an adult, then things will get easier – or more difficult – for me and for the country.

11. Second conversation with the philosopher
A corridor in the castle. Night.

CHRISTINA
Tell me, as you are a great philosopher and a tall man: does the soul have a gender?
DESCARTES
Well… umm… (thinks) No.
CHRISTINA
Are you sure?
DESCARTES
Well… (thinks for a long time) It is not a philosopher’s job to reply, rather to pose questions so that no previous thought accidentally finds its way into them.
CHRISTINA
But I asked you first. Why does the finger bend? The hand can be fairly nimble grabbing hold of money and putting it in a pocket, but what is the spring and the mechanism that moves those nifty little fingers about? What’s the crank that makes everything click like that? You want to prove that life is just like a steak on a plate with not a single secret, and all you have to do is put little scraps of knowledge together like peas in a line and voilà, there you have it, the chemical formula for love and the secret of life and death, and no one would actually have to live anymore, like the first time you live, at the expense of your soul.
Right, now you’re going to bed, I get quite irritated with people creeping around at night, running about the corridors after young damsels in your nightdress. Hm, French ways mixed together with the Nordic climate, that’s really asking for trouble. I gave you a pair of thick felt slippers, now where are they? You don’t want to lose your manly dignity on these night-time escapades, do you, it’s the pitter-patter of the slippers that disturbs you! And that cold is quite dreadful!
You are not allowed to get ill, otherwise everyone will blame me and say, what a stupid woman, she killed the greatest genius of the age! Do you hear what I’m saying? Go to bed!
DESCARTES
I am used to deciding for myself when I go to bed and when I wake up.
CHRISTINA
I will meet you at five o’clock in the morning. On the dot. And don’t you ever turn up late again! Good night.

14. The Parliament

CHRISTINA
Well? What have you all decided? Will you let me in?
DESCARTES
The matter is still in hand.
CHRISTINA
If you wish me to rule, then you will allow me into the parliament, if not, then it would be best to say so straight away with none of this messing about.
DESCARTES
This is not the point, rather it is a question of the law: women are forbidden entrance to the halls of parliament. Regardless of all your splendid qualities you cannot deny the fact that you are, after all, a woman.
CHRISTINA
I am the Queen.
DESCARTES
We must be extremely vigilant, or soon the halls will be filled with all kinds of crotchet and nappies. Surely you do not want that either.
CHRISTINA
I’m going out.
DESCARTES
Wait here. It is not good for you to be creeping about at night. Rumours will spread, the Queen fishes about in the well, mad just like her mother.
CHRISTINA
(becoming agitated) It’s strange that this is my hall, my country, my realm and my well and I’m not allowed to go anywhere!
DESCARTES
In any case, they rarely talk about anything interesting in there.
CHRISTINA
Do you know, in Sweden people eat many many eels, but only twice in history has a male eel ever been found. In some mysterious way, this country is trying to change all the males into chicks.
DESCARTES
Let us then do the opposite. From now on I shall address you as King. Then no one will have to the power to prevent you from going wherever you please. I shall announce you to the parliament: His Majesty, King Christina!
(An official leads Christina away.
)
OFFICIAL
(very nervously) It has been put forward that you should bless the font in the manger for homeless children, and then there is this War Widows’ Knitting Club, they would be most honoured if you would take part in their work. Oh yes, and the League for Hunting Dogs need some new emblems, we must design a new flag for them and have it embroidered, I hear you have an artistic eye, you could come up with some thematic colours, and of course you have such artistic interests.
And, there is a particular system whereby full members enter the hall on the left and others on the right. (They change places.)
Yes, there has always been such a custom. (They change places.)
Indeed, there is one particular custom that full members enter the hall from this side and others from that side and so before the meeting can begin one has to get into the right position, so that everyone is in the right place, before proceedings can get underway…

16. Final conversation with the philosopher

CHRISTINA
(mumbles)
DESCARTES
What did you say?
CHRISTINA
Nothing. (Continues mumbling.)
DESCARTES
You did say something.
CHRISTINA
I can ventriloquise, although it’s not of much use to a Queen. But I will found a school, in Helsinki, an academy in my dire realm Finland, in which the major subject will be ventriloquism. One will have to defend one’s doctoral thesis ventriloquially or it will be failed and a great purple haemorrhoid belt will be tied around the stomach of the new doctor.
Don’t look so critical. I had hoped you’d have at least some bad taste, we’re so poor here in the north that we can’t afford such things, thoughts and ideas have to be clean and strict as Nordic architecture. In France you can afford to call a good restaurant Dog Farts and no one would bat an eyelid. What?
DESCARTES
We will speak in the morning.
CHRISTINA
It’s only two hours until the morning. We may as well speak now.
DESCARTES
I don’t think so.
CHRISTINA
I thought that philosophy would be free from the constraints of time and place, but perhaps that only applies to higher classical philosophy.
DESCARTES
Perhaps. Good night.
CHRISTINA
(shouts) Good morning!
DESCARTES
Everything freezes in this country, rivers, wells, the soul and all thought and reason. Everything! Dear oh dear…

26. The abdication

KARL GUSTAV
When the Queen abdicated the throne, she was wearing a white gown and a cloak. An apple, a sceptre and the crown. The chancellor Axel Oxenstierna read notice of the abdication…
OXENSTIERNA
I will not!
KARL GUSTAV
Well, someone will. Then Per Brahe lifted the crown from the Queen’s head.
PER BRAHE
I will not!
KARL GUSTAV
(panicking) Well then someone will take it!
CHRISTINA
I’ll do it myself.
KARL GUSTAV
Then we all moved over to watch the crowning of Karl Gustav X and joined in the following procession.
CHRISTINA
I did not go.
I watched from the window, there wasn’t all that much to see, it started to rain and I pulled the curtains to. Perhaps I would have seen things better from the balcony, distance helps you to see more clearly.
(Everyone joins the procession.)
KARL GUSTAV
It was raining hard as we escorted the Queen out of the city. Everyone was crying, because it was that kind of occasion. It was difficult not to cry. I was annoyed to see that she was laughing.
What is it? Tossing her hair about and laughing. What’s that all about?
CHRISTINA
When I arrive in Rome and sit upon the high mountain tops between God and the Pope I will have a medallion cast. On one side will be the globe and on the other my portrait and around it in great thick golden letters I’ll slap on the words: Not Enough For Me! (Laughs.)
But I am not greedy. East, West and South, I’ll be happy with them. You can keep the North. That’s no longer on my map.
(She tears up the map; waves with it.)
QUEEN MOTHER
We don’t want to hear a thing about her, the traitor. What is there to know? She’s weak, wanted power, couldn’t handle responsibility, escaped and left. Full stop.
KARL GUSTAV
I know that the Queen was buried in Rome, but precisely what was buried at her funeral no one knows. The coffin is full of silk and the secrets of a lonely woman.

27. Epilogue
The Pope’s meal

CHRISTINA
At the Pope’s table one cannot ask, nor refuse, nor think, just eat, eat the meal in front of you laid out on a pure snow white cloth, drink blood red wine and look at the sea of people gazing up with great big eyes, without even blinking, at the way the mouth chews and the way the crystal goblet rises to your lips; at the way a former Queen ate and swallowed the Pope’s meal and how the flesh of the eel became her flesh and united with her flesh, turned into her hair and her skin and her thoughts never again to leave her.

CHRISTINA

To Apollo, with the golden hair
born of
          the daughter of Kos to the glorious son of Kronos,

Yet Artemis solemnly swore
           by her father’s head:
‘I shall forever remain a virgin
and shall live atop the high mountains and hunt;
please grant my will’

The Father of the blessed Gods nodded his consent,
                    both the Gods
and mortals shall call her the Huntress who
          throws far
The Great Thrower, a splendid name,
                    never to wed

never shall love approach her

        fear

[Poem by Sappho; this English translation is based on a Finnish translation by Pentti Saarikoski, published in his book Iltatähti, häälaulu (‘Evening star, wedding song’, 1984), with reference to D. I. Page’s Carminum Alcaicorum Fragmenta (1955).]

Translated by David Hackston

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