NOTE: Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy” served as a springboard for Philip Boehm’s theater piece Soul of a Clone, which premiered in January 2005 at Upstream Theater in St. Louis. The first of the play’s three parts consists of a scientist presenting “found footage” that shows Kafka’s ape-turned-human in St. Louis during the 1920’s–corroboration of the lecturer’s theory of “acute saltational mutation in primates.” The second part, which is reprinted here, involves a presentation by the former ape’s grandson “Zeke.” This is followed by a live performance of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2–“proving that humans’ climb out of the primordial mulch has given them the ability to create truly transcendent work on occasion” (Chicago Reader critic Kerry Reid). For performance rights, please contact the publisher or firstname.lastname@example.org.
(A podium, with a glass of water, a small bowl of fruit–apple, banana, orange–and an unlit candle. On the other side of stage, a cello on a stand, and a chair.)
ZEKE: Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed colleagues, fellow fellows of this Institute! It is a great honor to be invited to speak at this center of study, this Mecca of research, this cauldron of cogitation… If only my grandfather–whom I think most of you knew personally–could be here to witness this event… my grandfather Fritz, who in his early days as an ape was captured along what was once the Gold Coast and now is Ghana. Captured and caged and shipped off to the Hagenbeck Circus in Hamburg. Whereupon–as I’m sure many of you remember–to the astonishment of hunters, sailors and Mr. John Hagenbeck himself, he embarked on a journey of his own making and in one great leap vaulted the ancient chasm that divides the species, by draining an entire bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label and shouting HEY BUDDY with a voice that echoed those early grunting words, those first tottering steps, that primal grinding of mental gears that have cogged their way through generation after generation of hominids, enabling them to accomplish things unattainable to the unevolved–the Sistine Chapel, Bach’s Cello Suites, (Beat.) Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks, Automatic Anti-Virus updating, and nuclear… well. (Pause. He sips water.) So if only my grandfather–whom I hope at least some of you remember–could be here with us… he would appreciate the significance, the symbolic value, and even or especially the ironic humor in the fact that I have been invited to speak to you today. (Sighs. Pause. Leaves podium.) But let’s be honest: you and I both know he wasn’t really my grandfather. I mean when I was little I believed it but then when I was eleven I had my first flash of doubt and by thirteen it was a blinking red light and by fourteen it was the very painful revelation that nothing I’d been led to believe about my family background was true! Not the business about the fearless high wire act or the tragic fall or my greatgrandmother’s maiden name. And then one day my grandfather sat down with me and told me a story he’d spiced up with just enough truth for me to swallow because there was no way I could have managed the whole-and-nothing-but-the-truth truth, and after that our family tree started seeming less and less about family and more and more about trees and that’s when Dr. Mendelevich here started giving me books to read about genes and chromosomes and one day it dawned on me that I was really nothing but a breakthrough in genetic engineering. That was exactly three days before my seventeenth birthday except it meant that my birthday like everything else was a kind of fiction for the simple reason that I was and am now and always will be–and today I no longer mumble when I say it–a clone. (Pause. Crosses to cello, picks up bow, inspects, puts down.) Of course this comes as no surprise to you, who knew me down to the DNA before I figured out how to stick my thumb in my mouth… Many of you probably debated whether I should exist at all… delving into issues usually staked out and claimed by philosophers, theologians, and sundry moral inquisitors. (Beat.) But utilitarianism triumphed once again, in its own comfortable way, and here I am: perhaps the most celebrated soul on the planet. (Beat. Sets up for “performance.”) Soul, that’s right. Hath not a clone a heart? If you prick us, do we not bleed? And if you deny our soul, will our heart not break? (Beat. Returns downstage.) If not the most celebrated then certainly the most studied. Through every kind of lens known to science. From electron-microscopes to computerized axial tomography and the hidden video cameras that have created some of the most widely viewed baby pictures in history and undoubtedly continue to sacrifice my privacy on the altar of achievement. (Resins bow. Then, smiling to audience:) Well I’m not Janos Starker or even Yo Yo Ma but I manage. Yo Yo Manage, that’s me. Of course they could have spliced a few of HIS genes and then I’d be playing at the Concertgebouw or recording my thirty-third CD or giving master classes at Juilliard. Or then again perhaps not. The critics would probably just write me off as apish imitation. Yo Yo Wannabe. Conceivably I could have taken his genes and applied it to a different instrument, something like the oud. Or the ukulele. Just think: I might have singlehandedly put the ukulele back in the forefront of American music… (An atavistic moment. He hears something from a distant past… then breaks into a song-and-dance with: “I’m the sheik of Araby.” After which he “recovers” and returns to podium.) But you know: even the genetically planned are subject to fate. And instead of maestro Ma they chose old Fritz, gold medal champion of the species pole vault, the ape turned man, who broke the bonds of his own genetic incarceration… I still see him before me, tinkering with his pipe, teetering in his rocker, toying with the gold-plated pocketwatch John Hagenbeck bequeathed to him. Sometimes, he’d say to me, I wonder if I wasn’t freed from the food chain only to be fettered to the clock. Because time is something only humans care about. (Break, to audience, another role…) And I have no delight to pass away the time unless to spy my shadow in the sun and descant on my own deformity…(Another recovery. Back to podium.) Now and then he’d start telling me about his early years, except he never quite found the words. You can read the articles: almost all of his interviewers describe his memories of that time as a murky oblivion or forgetful fog. To me it always sounded more like a bright colorful haze. Of course for them he was always just a story–of odds overcome, a lesson in wills and ways, a supreme example of the the transcendence of man and the ascendancy of the individual. At best a Kaspar Hauser of the apes… Good old Fritz–at first they called him Red Peter, by the way, a name he loathed–breaking the shackles of speechlessness to become master of his own fate. Diligence as the path to freedom–hmmm. (Beat.) But was this freedom freely chosen? Think about the freedom he lost–and I don’t just mean the swinging from the trees kind. Imagine how liberating it would be for any one of us to live like he did, in the moment, every verb in present tense, all past lessons and future plans neatly bundled into the Limbic System. Free to experience the world as sensate truth in its full tactile and aural and olfactory splendor. (Beat. Picks up apple, sniffs it, and puts it down.) Instead of that we have the mock suffrage of the supermarket aisle with thirty-seven brands of mouthwash and fifty-nine kinds of decongestant, assortment masquerading as liberty in one great bedazzling, befuddling, and benumbing display, where children are equipped with tiny carts the minute they can toddle; presumably the first step in our ongoing evolution into Homo consumptis, characterized by a forward-leaning, cart- pushing posture, barcode-scanning eyes, and tastes that change less with the seasons and more with fluctuations in price. (Beat. Picks up apple and examines it.) This fruit for instance. Apples oranges and (Smiles.) bananas in every produce section of every supermarket in every state of the Union. No wonder that ninety-seven percent of Americans polled think of apples oranges or (Smiles…) bananas when they hear the word fruit. Not that this apple tastes much like anything Johnny Appleseed would have planted: it’s more engineered than I am, for super shelf life and shiny skin. (A dainty bite of apple.) Uggh!–you know if Eve had found this particular specimen lying around the garden we’d still be frolicking about naked blissful and ignorant snake or no snake, and a whole lot of people would be out of business from the pope to Victoria’s Secret. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those limousine Luddites who doesn’t BELIEVE in genetically modified plant products. I mean: what’s to believe or not believe? Plants have known about genetic modification long before people caught on. And plenty of people were playing with genes before Mendel ever laid eye on a pea. (Beat.) By the way: did you ever stop to wonder why a celibate Augustinian monk was so obsessed with breeding? You know he started off with mice? But then the local bishop looked in and decided that the monks shouldn’t monkey with mammalian reproduction and so Mendel had to stick with peas. As if plants don’t have a sex life of their own. And as if Gregor Mendel wasn’t a deeply spiritual man himself. I mean I’m convinced that he as well as his abbot and the entire monastery of St. Thomas would have happily embraced stem cell research just to apply the results to the betterment of humankind… but we all have to start somewhere so why not with peas? (Beat. Sits down at cello, removes pin, then puts it back down on ground and returns to audience.) Nope, whether it’s from a downwind speck of pollen or Navajo seed selection or David Austin playing with roses or some PhD at Monsanto firing a gene gun, DNA is always getting played with–it’s just a question of defining the rules for any given game. Sometimes the players have more control and sometimes it’s more up to the dice. As for me, I’d rather place my money on chess than Ouija. Of course, I’m a fine one to talk… (Aside.) That’s actually the title of my next book, if any of you are interested: DNA at play: Genetic Chess vs. The Chromasomal Ouija board. There’ll be a table at the reception. (Back to speech.) Chess it is then. The link between science and spirituality… Hmmm. (Goes to cello.) Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to Bach… (Beat. Plays one note to establish pitch and sings this verse from “I’ll never get out of this world alive” by Hank Williams.) “A distant uncle passed away/ and left me quite a batch/ and I was livin high until the fatal day/ a lawyer proved I wasn’t born I was only hatched. .” (Back up to podium.) Let’s see, where was I…Supermarkets… Freedom… Heirlooms and hybrids… If only my grandfather… That’s right–the actual subject of my talk, which I alluded to earlier with the line: “Hath not a clone a heart…” You know, one result of having more than a dose of Old Fritz in me is a certain distance to language. And I have to confess that it’s always struck me as odd that the word soul that sounds so much like the sun in so many cultures sounds like the bottom of your foot in ours. I know it’s silly but still…(He takes out pocket watch and examines it.) Naturally I only know what it feels like to me. And the first place I’d look for a soul would be in my heart, because I know for a fact I have a heart. I’ve felt it hurt. And you know, it hurt most when I realized I hurt another heart. So please don’t expect any enlightenment beyond that. I mean who’s to say who or what has a soul and what or who does not. For my money there are plenty of soulless things out there. Televisions for instance. Hard disk drives. Especially television. Even my beautiful–and I mean oooeee beautiful–red Camaro. And it must follow that the more people resemble their cars and computers, or the more they start thinking like their TV, the less we see of their souls. But that’s just me. You might feel different, right? (He leaves the watch on the podium.) Anyway something tells me Old Fritz didn’t acquire a soul when he started talking like a human. But maybe his old soul grew when he started to listen. Maybe that’s it. I guess I think that any creature that takes the time to stop and look or smell or listen has to have something there. (He gently swings the watch into motion. Sets metronome. He looks at cello, and as CELLIST emerges, lights the candle, then sits down offstage to listen to the cello solo–possibly Bach’s 2nd Suite in D minor. After the solo he rises and faces the audience.) My name is Zeke. As in Ezekiel. (Quoting or reading.) “and the Lord carried me out in a spirit, and set me down in the midst of the valley, and it was full of bones…and they were very dry. And the bones came together, bone to bone, and there were sinews upon them, and flesh came up, and skin covered them from above, but there was no breath in them. Then the Lord said unto me: ‘Prophesy unto the breath, son of man” So I prophesied as He commanded, saying: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. And the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet…” (Cello coda.)
© Philip Boehm. All rights reserved.