In pursuit of a conscience

19 March 2012 | Drama, Fiction

‘An unflinching opera and a hot-blooded cantata about a time when the church was torn apart, Finland was divided and gays stopped being biddable’: this is how Pirkko Saisio’s new play HOMO! (music composed by Jussi Tuurna) is described by the Finnish National Theatre, where it is currently playing to full houses. This tragicomical-farcical satire takes up serious issues with gusto. In this extract we meet Veijo Teräs, troubled by his dreams of Snow White, who resembles his steely MP wife Hellevi – and seven dwarves. Introduction by Soila Lehtonen

Dictators and bishops: Scene 15, ‘A small international gay opera’. Photographs: The Finnish National Theatre / Laura Malmivaara, 2011

CAST OF CHARACTERS
Veijo Teräs
Hellevi, Veijo’s wife and a Member of Parliament
Hellevi’s Conscience
Rebekka, Hellevi and Veijo’s daughter
Moritz, Hellevi and Veijo’s godson
Agnes af Starck-Hare, Doctor of Psychiatry
Seven Dwarves
Tom of Finland
Atik
The Bishop of Mikkeli
Adolf Hitler
Albert Speer
Josef Stalin
Old gays: Kale, Jorma, Rekku, Risto
Olli, Uffe,Tiina, Jorma: people from SETA [the Finnish LGBT association]
Second Lieutenant, Private Teräs, the men in the company
A Policeman
Big Gay, Little Gay, Middle Gay
William Shakespeare
Hermann Göring
Hans-Christian Andersen
Teemu & Oskari, a gay couple
The Apostle Paul
Father Nitro
Winston Churchill

SCENE ONE


On the stage, a narrow closet.

Veijo Teräs appears, struggling to get out of the closet.

Veijo Teräs is dressed as a prince. He is surprised and embarrassed to see that the audience is already there. He seems to be waiting for something.

He speaks, but continues to look out over the audience expectantly.

Snow White's spouse, Veijo (Juha Muje), and the dwarves. Photo: Laura Malmivaara, 2011

VEIJO
This outfit isn’t specifically for me, because… I mean, it’s part of this whole thing. This Snow White thing. I’m waiting for the play to start. Just like you are. My name is Veijo Teräs and I’m playing the point of view role in this story. Writers put point of view roles like this in their plays nowadays. They didn’t use to.

Just to be clear – this isn’t a ballet costume. I’m not going to do any ballet dancing, but I won’t mind if someone dances, even if it’s a man. Particularly if it’s a man. But I don’t watch. Ballet, I mean. Not at the opera house, or on television, or anywhere, and I have no idea why we had to bring up ballet – or I had to bring it up – because this is a historical costume, so it’s appropriate. This is what men used to wear, real men like Romeo and Hamlet, or Cyrano de Bergerac. But we in the theatre these days have a hell of a job getting an audience to listen to what a man has to say when he’s standing there saying what he has to say in an outfit like this. People get the idea that it’s a humorous thing, but this isn’t, this Snow White thing, where I play the prince. Snow White is waiting in her glass casket, she died from an apple, which seems to have become the Apple logo, Lord knows why, the one on the laptops you see on the tables of every café in town.

Some people might think that I’m a bit too old, maybe a little miscast in the role of the prince, but wait until you see Snow White.

But you can’t see Snow White until the dwarves make their entrance. They’re late again, probably in the green room chewing the fat… No, wait. Listen. Here they come. Right at the correct dramaturgical moment we hear them singing as they return home from a hard day’s work in the mines.

Maybe I should pretend to be a tree.

Veijo Teräs pretends to be a tree.
The seven dwarves enter with picks over their shoulders.
The dwarves are large and look deceptively like hockey players – even their picks look like hockey sticks.

THE SONG OF THE SEVEN DWARVES

Just whistle while you work
tralalallallallalla
the work is steady, hot and heavy,
but we never shirk!

SECOND DWARF
Cold, wet, and damned unhealthy! Knees are shot, but what the heck.

Just whistle while you work
tralalallallallalla
just us fellas, day and night
together in the dark…..

FOURTH DWARF
But Bashful… what are you bashful about? There’s nothing to be bashful about. Not these days.

Just whistle while you work
tralalallallallalla
when you feel hungry
and go at it…

FIFTH DWARF
Go at what?

THE OTHERS
The puck, of course!

SECOND DWARF
Or anyone at all!

Just whistle while you work
tralalallallallalla
when you feel hungry
and go at it
digging gold from dirt.

FIRST DWARF
Or ice!

when you feel hungry
and go at it
digging gold from ice!

Third dwarf sneezes.

FIRST DWARF
Have you got a cold, Sneezy?

FOURTH DWARF
Poor brother Sneezy. What’s that white stuff in your nose?

VEIJO (Pretending to be a tree)
This is serious for me. This Snow White thing.

SECOND DWARF
Sneezy sucked up all our lines. Now look at us.

VEIJO
Honest it is.

SECOND DWARF
Right on the chalk line.

VEIJO
I can’t bear to listen to this.

FIRST DWARF
Yeah. Sorry. We may have got off course. We’ll get back to the plot. So. Where is Snow White?

FOURTH DWARF
Where is Snow White and our dinner and our mended socks and so forth?

FIFTH DWARF
I think she’s dead.

THE DWARVES
Dead? Dead! Dead! But where is the prince, who can wake her with a kiss?

Veijo steps up to the casket in his prince’s outfit.
Snow White is lying in the casket.
The casket is opened, the dwarves pretend to weep.

DWARVES
Kiss her, sweet prince, oh kiss her, kiss her, kiss her! Maybe then she’ll wake up!

Veijo bends over Snow White. He starts to feel faint.

SCENE TWO

Doctor of Psychiatry Agnes af Starck-Hare is helping Veijo Teräs out of his prince’s costume.

AGNES
And at that moment, you always wake up?

VEIJO
Yes. I mean, although they’re all a little different, these dreams. But plot-wise, it goes right up to this kissing scene, which frightens me.

AGNES
Kissing your wife is frightening?

VEIJO
No, no, goodness no. This is Snow White. Hellevi is my wife.

AGNES

Kissing a woman who isn’t your wife Hellevi is frightening?

VEIJO
No, no. I mean yes. In the sense that I’ve never kissed any other woman but Hellevi. If you don’t count some fumbling around in high school, but…

AGNES (Interrupting him)
Is your wife frigid?

VEIJO
No no no. What do you mean?

AGNES
I just thought… Well, she appears to you behind glass. And dead.

VEIJO
No, no. It’s not Hellevi. It’s Snow White.

AGNES
I see. Right. Yes. We’ll come back to Snow White later. But tell me something about this Hellevi.

VEIJO
Hellevi?

AGNES
Yes. Anything at all that comes to mind.

VEIJO
Fact or fiction?

AGNES
In this room, fact and fiction are the same thing, like they are in your unconscious mind.

VEIJO
Well, then. Hellevi is…

Hellevi arises from the glass casket in all her glory, like a divine vision.
The Chorus [i.e. the dwarves] follows her with folders of documents under their arms.

SONG OF HELLEVI

Snow White? Hellevi Teräs (Rea Mauranen) and her Conscience (Kristiina Halttu). Photo: Laura Malmivaara, 2011

Hellevi is… Hellevi is… Hellevi is…
Who is Hellevi?
Hellevi is… Hellevi is… Hellevi is…

Hellevi is the shining sun,
and the moon primeval.
Hellevi is the tree of the knowledge of good,
and sometimes evil.
Who can describe Hellevi?
Who would dare to do so?
Who dares give the definition of Hellevi?

Hellevi is… Hellevi is… Hellevi is…
Who the Hellevi is she?
Hellevi is… Hellevi is… Hellevi is…

VEIJO
… an exceptionally competent woman.

AGNES
An exceptionally competent woman? In what sense?

VEIJO
In every sense… I mean everyone senses it. In relation to everything. She’s a member of parliament.

HELLEVI
I wasn’t made a minister because…

HELLEVI’S CONSCIENCE
Because you have no heart.

Like a cross across her back
Hellevi carries the burden of her conscience,
carries, carries her conscience,
faithfully,
unflaggingly
Hellevi carries the burden of her conscience
like a cross across her back.
Hellevi is… Hellevi is… Hellevi is…

HELLEVI
I wasn’t made a minister, because I’m uncompromising and I push the values the Finnish people believe in, if they had time to believe in anything with all their drinking liquor and frequenting internet porn sites.

HELLEVI’S CONSCIENCE
You’re lacking love, and all that goes with it…

HELLEVI (interrupting)
My constituency is…

HELLEVI’S CONSCIENCE (interrupting)
… and so your speech is like sounding brass and…

HELLEVI
My approval ratings say otherwise.

HELLEVI’S CONSCIENCE
You persecute single parents and church dropouts and gays and conscientious objectors.

HELLEVI
I don’t persecute anyone, but I hold tightly to the limits my constituents demand, around this country and within it.

HELLEVI’S CONSCIENCE
You’ve sold your soul to the voters.

HELLEVI
I haven’t sold anyone or anything, not even you, although I would have liked to. Many times. A person needs a conscience, even if it’s a heavy one.

HELLEVI’S CONSCIENCE
A person needs…

HELLEVI (interrupting)
Love and the gospel. That’s what a person needs, and nothing else, whether they’re a conscientious objector or a gay or even a normal person. And vitamin D in the winter, of course, here in our northern clime.

HELLEVI’S CONSCIENCE
But do you feel love?

HELLEVI
Love isn’t any feeling.

HELLEVI’S CONSCIENCE
If love isn’t a feeling, then what is it?

HELLEVI
Well, there are very clear instructions about it, and about how it should be carried out, in the Word, and that’s what I go by. And you’re starting to get on my nerves now. There’s a committee meeting in session here and I ought to concentrate… for God’s sake, forgive me, Lord, for taking your name in vain, we have these fertility treatments for female couples, but I probably didn’t say it out loud, did I?

AGNES
So your wife talks to herself? Does that worry you?

VEIJO
No. I mean yes. Maybe. I don’t know. She has these internal battles with her conscience, sort of like Jacob wrestling his angel. She has a very tender conscience, which shows that she’s…

AGNES
Yes?

VEIJO
She’s very… she has a very unusual… she’s a fine woman, exceptionally competent, and I don’t quite understand why we’re talking about her, since I’m the patient here.

AGNES
Could we describe this Hellevi by saying that she’s a bit domineering?

VEIJO
I’m in charge at our house.

AGNES
Really?

VEIJO
That is Hellevi’s wish.

HELLEVI (commenting during a lull in the committee’s work)
That is my wish, because it says in the Word that man is the head of the woman, and woman is made from man’s rib.

VEIJO (to Agnes)
I frequently have sharp pains right here (pointing to his ribs).

HELLEVI
Of course you have pains. It’s because I’m not there. There’s an empty place there.

VEIJO
I’ve been to the doctor, but they didn’t find anything. That’s why I came here. Because of this rib thing, and also the Snow White thing. This Snow White thing, is it a fixation, or what?

AGNES
Do you have any children?

Like Michelangelo's David? Veijo (Juha Muje) and Rebekka (Anna Paavilainen) both are fascinated by Moritz (Johannes Holopainen). Photo: Laura Malmivaara, 2011

VEIJO
No, but we have a daughter. Rebekka. She studies biology.

REBEKKA
Gene technology.

VEIJO
I mean she’s an adult.

HELLEVI
She thinks she is.

VEIJO
They have these normal mother and daughter intergenerational issues sometimes…. Often.

REBEKKA
It’s not normal. It’s not normal that a member of parliament could give a shit about scientific facts.

HELLEVI
The Bible is my law-book, and my encyclopaedia.

REBEKKA
How am I supposed to talk to a supposedly civilised adult person who believes in creationism?

HELLEVI
Respectfully. It’s mentioned a couple of times in the Good Book, to honour your father and mother.

HELLEVI’S CONSCIENCE
You’re not listening to anyone.

REBEKKA
You never listen to anyone.

HELLEVI
Yes I am listening to you. But not to your point of view. God made man in his image, not an ape.

REBEKKA
A chimpanzee’s DNA is ninety-nine percent identical to human DNA.

HELLEVI
But one percent isn’t identical.

REBEKKA
For God’s sake, that’s scientifically meaningless, because…

HELLEVI (interrupting)
Vive la difference!

….

Translated by Lola Rogers

HOMO! Musiikkinäytelmä (‘HOMO! A musical play’, the play text by Pirkko Saisio, is published by Lasipalatsi, Helsinki, 2011 (ISBN 978-952-480-245-1)

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