CAST OF CHARACTERS
OLD WOMAN (NARRATOR)
SIX HOLY DEACONS (already dead)
EMPEROR VALERIAN OF ROME
CHORUS OF THE POOR
SOLDIERS, GUARDS, EXECUTIONERS
The action takes place at Rome, on the 10th of August in the year AD 258.
[Night. A hill overlooking Rome. Enter an OLD WOMAN. She gazes up at the night sky, which suddenly explodes with falling stars.]
OLD WOMAN Tonight the sky is falling. Stars like fiery tears rain down from heaven. Tears of men, or of angels Tears of Christ, shed for our sins. Stars, why do you weep? Do you mourn the six young men murdered this very afternoon? Six holy deacons of the Christian Church Killed in cold blood by the Emperor’s men Killed for Christ, whose name was on their lips as they died. They died for Christ Who died for us. Their headless bodies wallow in the Tiber now. Our bishop, Sixtus, has escaped And with him, Lawrence, youngest of all the holy deacons of Rome. We all know Lawrence, for he it is that gives Bread to the poor and with it the bread of life, Christ’s kiss. ‘God be with you, Mother,’ He said, and kissed me himself, like a son Not at all ashamed to kiss a beggar woman. In the city the soldiers go from house to house The glare of torches desecrates the peaceful night Peering into every corner, down alleys, under bridges— Shouts, cries, the glint of armour and the flash of swords. Christian men and women, along with their children, are dragged from their beds. Like sheep without a shepherd they stand shivering in confusion. Their eyes look this way and that— No help is at hand. The soldiers mock them and strike blows at random. Soon a man’s head is bleeding Another lies still upon the ground. The women utter prayers through trembling lips And try to calm the little ones Who hang upon their necks and cry. The men, powerless to protect them, Are flogged and thrown into prison. In the morning they are brought before magistrates Forced to reveal the names of priests and deacons. Instruments of torture are set before their eyes. Their goods are forfeit, their wives and children threatened. Some even curse the name of Christ and burn offerings to the eyeless gods of Rome. How long, O Lord? Will you hide your face forever? How long will you burn like fire against your children? In vain we cry out Our voices ring upon the hollow vault of heaven The Emperor is merciless, the people terrified. Now stars drop from the sky like tears— What can it mean? What terrible thing is upon us? When angels weep—surely then men have cause to fear.
[Exit OLD WOMAN. Now the SIX HOLY DEACONS rise from the waters of the Tiber and stand, just on the surface of the water. They are dressed in white robes, and each bears a circular red wound around the neck, where his head was severed. A soft, golden light illuminates them; all else is in darkness.]
SONG OF THE SIX HOLY DEACONS We are the six holy deacons Killed for Christ. We stand before you now Our hearts in our hands. We are the six holy deacons We stand before you bathed in the blood of Christ. Like soldiers we went into battle Armed not with hatred But with holy love. Let any man raise his hand against us, We greet him with a kiss, We call him ‘Brother.’ Let any man lift up a sword against us We kiss his hand and call upon our Father in heaven to reckon it not. We have given our lives, a free gift, to you who come after us and drenched the thirsty earth with our blood That you might reap a great golden harvest. Let truth and righteousness spring up out of the land Let mercy and peace blossom here And let men say— See how they love one another! These Christians have renewed the face of the earth.
[The SIX HOLY DEACONS sink back into the river as their light is extinguished.]
[In the catacombs. SIXTUS and LAWRENCE, on the run.]
SIXTUS Quick, my son—the time has come— Death like an angry dog is snapping at our heels. Heaven and hell stand open and an Angel with a ready pen soon will write our names in characters of fire. Six of your brothers stand, even as we speak, at heaven’s gate. Only you have been spared, my one ewe lamb.
LAWRENCE Father, I’m not afraid— When the soldiers come I’ll stand over you Ward off their blows with my naked hands, Their harsh words with my prayers. Surely they won’t dare to stain white hairs with blood Nor strike a holy man like you But take me instead.
SIXTUS My child, listen carefully— I call you my child because I love you But in truth, Lawrence, you are a man. The seed fell on good ground And you’ve grown up a strong young plant Your roots deep in the Lord. When the soldiers come for me You must run and hide. . . .
LAWRENCE Father, what are you saying! Never, oh, never— Leave you, dear to me as my own soul Leave you, an old man, alone and defenceless, to face a pack of soldiers— Leave you alone to die!
SIXTUS Listen to me, Lawrence— You must abandon me to God’s will.
LAWRENCE It is you, Father, who abandon me! Do you take heaven for yourself And leave me the earth? Where are you going, Father, without your son? Where, holy priest, without your deacon? Never have you offered sacrifice to God without the help of your servant. Will you now make this last sacrifice alone? Oh my Father, how have I offended you? How am I unworthy to be called your son? Bind me to the altar Oh, I am bound already with iron bands of love Offer your child to God, a living sacrifice Only do not send me away into a wilderness to hide in the shadows, alone and ashamed.
SIXTUS My son, I do not abandon you— A still greater trial awaits you in all the strength of your youth. God in his mercy sends me on before, A lighter combat is granted to old men. But you shall be tried, like gold in the fire, Like silver, seven times made pure. Hold fast to the faith. Truth like a sword cleaves heaven and earth and cuts the very marrow of the heart. And after three days you will follow me— the levite after the priest, the obedient son after his loving father.
[Sound of marching footsteps off.]
The soldiers are coming— Here is the key to the Church’s treasure. Open, and give all that we have to Christ’s poor. Let it not fall to the Emperor’s greedy hands. And now—Farewell, my son!
[He gives the key to LAWRENCE, and they embrace solemnly. LAWRENCE hastens away, stage left, just as the SOLDIERS enter, stage right. SIXTUS raises his hand and makes the sign of the cross in the direction of the departing LAWRENCE. The SOLDIERS seize SIXTUS and bind him roughly.]
[Enter OLD WOMAN and CHORUS OF THE POOR]
OLD WOMAN Now Sixtus too has lost his life And wears a martyr’s crown in heaven.
CHORUS OF THE POOR How many old men cling with greedy hands to life? Content to live their last in some forgotten corner by the fire. Not so our Father, Sixtus, Not so this brave old man. Frail and white-headed he went out to meet death Trusting not in himself but in God. In weakness he was strong Smiled on the angry mob and blessed his executioners. They thrust him down His thin knees buckled under him. Falling sideways, he uttered a prayer— The blow was struck. His spirit like a wandering bird flew home to God. Some cheered, others rushed up to dip their hands in his blood. Truly this old man lived like a lion and died like a lamb.
OLD WOMAN And what of Lawrence? I hear he too has been taken.
CHORUS Still slippery with Sixtus’ blood The marble floor before the great palace Where Lawrence is brought to face the Emperor. ‘What’s all this talk of treasure? They say you drink the blood of God from golden cups Make nightly sacrifice by light of golden candlesticks And serve up meat in jewel-encrusted golden bowls. Bring me that treasure—Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s due, And keep your head, young man.’ These were the Emperor’s words.
OLD WOMAN And how did Lawrence answer him?
CHORUS He agreed to the Emperor’s demand. ‘Only grant me three days’ grace,’ he said, ‘To gather all the treasure of the Church For it is great indeed. In three days’ time I shall lay it at your feet.’
OLD WOMAN Can this be true? Lawrence a traitor?
CHORUS Listen! He rushes off to secure the treasure— With both hands he gives away Every last bit of it into our hands. He seeks out the poorest quarters The narrow streets that he knows so well— Eagerly thrusts gold coins into the hands of poor widows, Hides a gold cup in a child’s ragged shirt, Gently he seizes the beggar’s wooden bowl And gives him a golden one instead. When all of it’s gone he gives thanks to God— ‘See, Father, I have fed your little flock!’ he cries. Now what will he show the Emperor in three day’s time?
OLD WOMAN Oh, brave young man! My spirit trembles.
CHORUS Now he runs from street to street Gathers up the poor, the halt, the lame, the blind. Sick men, too weak to walk, Are brought on pallets to his house— Beggars with running sores, Men without eyes, Without legs, Children without parents, Old people without children— All of us he brings together and blesses. All of us know him, So many times he fed us with bread and tenderness. Now he says he needs our help— But what is he planning? Nobody knows.
OLD WOMAN What did our Father Sixtus say? ‘After three days you will follow me.’ The hour comes round— Let us go now to the palace and see in what manner this promise shall be fulfilled.
[Before the Sallustian Palace. The EMPEROR VALERIAN sits on a raised throne, stage left, flanked by several GUARDS. LAWRENCE enters from stage right, leading in the CHORUS OF THE POOR, including the OLD WOMAN, who position themselves before the EMPEROR.]
CHORUS OF THE POOR Great Caesar, hear us! The wheel of sorrow turning and turning grinds us to dust. Great Caesar, hear the voice of your servants. Our children go hungry and ragged to bed. Great Caesar, pity affliction and sorrow. Show us your mercy and something to eat. Great Father, show us the depth of your kindness, A cup of cold water and something to eat!
EMPEROR What’s the meaning of this? Who are all these people? You there, hold your impudent tongues! Lawrence, have you brought the treasure you promised me? Your three days’ grace is done.
LAWRENCE Great Caesar, why do you turn your eyes Away from these little ones? Does something here displease you—Look again! The treasure that you seek lies not in golden but in earthen vessels. I told you that our Church is rich indeed—Now, see for yourself These children of God, his only treasure on earth. You ask me for gold? Behold these poor men’s faces shining with the charity of Christ. How they shame the brightest metal wrested from base earth. You ask for precious stones? Behold these women— The glittering jewels upon our temple walls. Young virgins full of modesty and grace, Chaste wives and holy widows A diadem of pearls to crown our Savior’s head. Last of all, behold these little children, These doves with golden feathers, Their eyes behold their Father’s face in heaven— Take them to your heart, Learn from them to be poor in spirit And you too shall grow as rich as they.
EMPEROR Is this some kind of joke? I think you’ll regret it. Enough of this nonsense— What have you done with the gold?
CHORUS We have borne it away with our hands—
OLD WOMAN The treasure that you seek is now in heaven—
CHORUS Where no rust can stain it Nor moth corrupt it No thief can steal it Nor any man spend it. The treasure men seek that grows ever greater is given to each and found in all.
LAWRENCE The gold you ask for is gone, Caesar.
EMPEROR You arrogant young fool! You Christians disobey me in everything. Fearing neither Caesar nor the gods You make a law unto yourselves to mockery and ruin of our city. Lawrence, what are you doing with this rabble? I know who you are— A young man of good name and good family Well-versed in the arts and sciences A fair face and a noble spirit— I’m sorry to see you in such low company. Why do you forsake the gods of your fathers, The ancient guardians of great Rome, to run after lurid superstitions? They say you worship a dead man, a certain Jew, and eat his flesh—Or else You worship a fish—or some such nonsense. How can you, a wise young man, Believe such childish tales?
LAWRENCE I worship neither dead man nor fish— I worship Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
EMPEROR And is this Jesus not a dead Jew?
LAWRENCE He is the living Christ The living Bread come down from heaven, And whoever eats of this Bread shall live forever.
EMPEROR Will you live forever, young Lawrence? I think you may die tonight.
LAWRENCE I fear no death but sin.
EMPEROR Then I think we must teach you to know fear, To worship Caesar and the gods of Rome.
LAWRENCE I worship Christ, my light, The strength of my soul.
EMPEROR Lawrence, listen to me— I take no pleasure in the death of such a man as you. Rome has need of brave new men. Abandon this company of vagabonds and slaves, Make your peace with the gods And we’ll forget the whole affair of the treasure. I myself will appoint you to an office in my household— Only agree to offer sacrifice.
LAWRENCE I agree— And give my body to be burned A living sacrifice to Christ my Lord!
EMPEROR [rises to his feet] Enough! Guards seize him!
[Two GUARDS converge on LAWRENCE and restrain him.]
Very well, young man, let it be so. Perhaps when you lie on Vulcan’s bed You’ll sing a different song— This insolent defiance has gone on too long. Prepare the fire!
[Night. The same place before the Sallustian Palace. The scene opens in almost total darkness. Two GUARDS carry on stage a man-sized gridiron and proceed to light a fire beneath it. While these preparations are underway, the SIX HOLY DEACONS appear, standing on the balcony of the palace overlooking the scene. They are once again bathed in their own warm, golden light.]
SIX HOLY DEACONS I am come to cast fire on the earth— Let it be kindled! As gold is purged in the fire Our brother’s body too must burn in the fiery furnace of charity. Lawrence, prepare to be baptised with the Holy Ghost and with fire. The flames leap up in the darkness The smoke rises to heaven But where is the lamb for the sacrifice?
[Gradual half-light comes up as LAWRENCE, arms bound behind him, is led in by two EXECUTIONERS carrying long-handled iron prods. They are accompanied by two SOLDIERS with flaming torches, who position themselves to either side of the gridiron. The effect should be one of ‘points of light’ in the darkness. These are followed by the CHORUS OF THE POOR, including the OLD WOMAN, who range themselves around the gridiron. Last of all, the EMPEROR emerges from inside the palace, and takes his place on the raised throne.]
SIX HOLY DEACONS [Spoken as LAWRENCE is being led on stage as above.] Behold, our youngest brother, Lawrence— See where he walks with measured step and eyes that look to heaven, A deacon approaching the altar His thoughts are all of God. See how his face shines like that of an angel— He does not fear the flames but welcomes them.
[The EXECUTIONERS unbind LAWRENCE and strip him of his robe. The GUARDS stir the coals beneath the gridiron, so that the flames shoot up and blaze brightly.]
SIX HOLY DEACONS [Spoken while the above action takes place.] See him now, naked before his God A hero goes clad in armour to the battle But a saint must be stripped of everything Nothing to protect him Nothing to console him Emptied out, so God can enter in Now he is ready at last to be laid on the altar of love.
[The EXECUTIONERS stretch LAWRENCE upon the red-hot gridiron and press his body down with the iron prods. LAWRENCE cries out in anguish, then lies back onto the blazing iron. A ray of light suddenly streams down from above, bathing his whole body in a warm, golden glow.]
LAWRENCE Here I am, Father!
SIX HOLY DEACONS See how he lies upon his bed of fire Quiet as a lamb in a green pasture. With the weight of one man’s body the world is moved The balance of the universe is turned The centre of evil cannot hold And darkness melts in the womb of the morning.
CHORUS OF THE POOR How can he bear it? He’s simply being roasted Just as if he were an ox or a sheep. How can he bear it? Such cruel torture Is surely too much for any man!
OLD WOMAN And he is so young! So full of life— Surely the young want to live! Where does he find such terrible courage?
SIX HOLY DEACONS It is Christ who has come Christ who bears witness Here in his servant naked in the flame. Christ is the flame that lights up the darkness. Christ is the light that enlightens the world.
EMPEROR Tell me, Lawrence— How do you find the bed I’ve made for you? Comfortable, I hope?
LAWRENCE Thank you, I’m quite done on this side— You may turn me over now, I think.
CHORUS OF THE POOR Did you hear what he said? He laughs at the Emperor Even now, as he burns in the heart of the fire. Look at his face! It shines like an angel’s, But what is he looking at? What is he reaching for? I don’t see anything— What is he gazing at up at the sky?
LAWRENCE [Straining towards the light, he reaches upwards with his left arm, while the EXECUTIONERS force him back with the iron prods.]
Father! Father! O my Father in heaven! Hear my prayer for these, your little children! Turn their hearts from blood and idols, Tear down their temples to the glittering gods of fear, And make of great Rome a Christian city. Christ stands at the crossroads, His arms stretched out to catch poor sinners as they pass. He catches them up in his arms and carries them off to heaven— Not one of them can escape his love. No, not a single one of us shall escape— Ah, Father, I thank you! Come, Lord Jesus! Come! Ah the light! the light! My night has no darkness; All things shine with light.
[He dies. At this same moment the SIX HOLY DEACONS vanish, along with their light. The ray of light that shines down on LAWRENCE flickers, and then goes out. The stage is again in semi-darkness, lit only by the fire under the gridiron and by the torches.
All are perfectly still. Then, slowly, and all together, the CHORUS OF THE POOR kneel down. After these the GUARDS, the SOLDIERS, and the EXECUTIONERS also kneel. Last of all, the EMPEROR gets to his feet, comes down from his throne, and kneels beside the body of the saint.]
[While all others remain kneeling, the OLD WOMAN makes the sign of the cross, rises, and comes down stage and stands, facing the audience. As she begins to speak, a soft, golden light shines around her.]
OLD WOMAN No man dies for himself alone; No good man is good for himself alone. From that day forth the people of Rome began to forsake their idols for the gentle yoke of Christ. The courage of this one man made many Christians And by his example drew many noble hearts after him. For virtue shines like a lamp in the darkness. Those who follow it shall not lose their way.
CHORUS OF THE POOR
[Speaking in hushed voices, that gradually rise in volume. As they speak, the falling stars appear once again over the scene.]
Let us weep fiery tears for our sins, Tears that melt the ice from around men’s hearts. Let us lie all night upon a bed of fire burning with love for Christ. And when the morning comes stepping over the mountains, Let us rise and dry our tears And run to his arms. With tears we sow the seeds of love in the cold earth of the heart, With laughter we shall gather a hundredfold harvest. The Lord has sent a tender rain The blood of his saints to water the earth. May the fields be white with grain and the vines bowed down with fruit May the trees droop their boughs with heavy fruit For the Lord has sent a new rain: the blood of his saints to renew the face of the earth.
Grace Andreacchi is an American-born novelist, poet, and playwright whose works include the novels Give My Heart Ease (New American Writing Award) and Music for Glass Orchestra, and the play Vegetable Medley (Soho Repertory Theater, New York and Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, Massachusetts). She holds a degree in philosophy, has lived in Paris and Berlin, and now lives in London (graceandreacchi.com).