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The Haunting of Ambassador Jefferson, Act 5 (PG)

David W. Parsley

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David W. Parsley



Cast of Characters

Mr. Pozzo: “Assistant director” character. Age 50 to 55, male, balding, somewhat stocky of build.

Sam: Foreman character for stage hands.

Stage Hands: Stage hand characters (real ones acting, or just actors.)

Fortuna: “Playwright” character (and presumably for the preceding scenes, as well).

Audience Character: Male or female seated front row, left. Chair marked ‘Reserved.’

Shopkeeper: Keeper of a shop specializing in breads and pastries, age 45 male.

James Hemings: 24 year old brother to Sally Hemings, servant to Jefferson in Paris; currently chef de cuisine at Jefferson’s Paris residence, the Hotel de Langeac.

Prostitute: Prostitute frustrated by lack of business. Age 30 female.

Steward: Steward from the hotel, assisting James Hemings. Age 30 male.

Thomas Jefferson: American ambassador to France.

Second Voice: A French revolutionary who figured in Act 4.


General Setting

Partially assembled stage: when complete, will display a street with shops in pre-revolutionary Paris, France, leading to a bridge on the Seine River.



Now. Action of fully assembled stage begins just before dawn July 5, 1789 - nine days before fall of the Bastille.



Eve of French revolution: James Hemings, Jefferson’s slave, and Steward negotiate with Shopkeeper, Prostitute onlooking. Jefferson is discovered disheveled on nearby bridge. Jefferson confides visions disclosed by shade of Abraham Lincoln: Paris upheaval and liberation; American expansion and emancipation. All depart except Prostitute, who experiences revolutionaries entering and dismantling scene.


SETTING: Theater lights are up, remain so

for first part of scene. Curtain opens on a portion of bridge over the Seine River, extending RC to R, shrouded in fog just before sunrise. The unrecognizable figure of actor (also named Tom) playing Thomas Jefferson slumps against the parapet with back turned to the audience. He is collapsed from the waist up, head in arms, in same attire as Act 4, but with mud caked on trousers and bared head. Blowing fog often obscures and persistently prevents clear view of him. He is motionless until action calls for movement.

AT RISE: STAGE HANDS come in while curtain is opening, setting up floor lights (in places, underlighting fog, but also illuminating street) and simulated sun behind the bridge. Others come in at the same time assembling a street light placed at the bridge entry and a row of shops, one with an interior light and exterior door lantern lit.

(MR. POZZO enters the theater from a rear or aisle door, walking briskly but distractedly, holding an open copy of the script. He alternates glances at the sheaf of paper with impatient assessments of the staging operation and the audience. On theater floor, he approaches foreman, SAM, on stage.)


You there, does everybody know this is a dress rehearsal?


Yeah... Hey, you guys with the lightpost! You think that thing’s a tree? Set it straight! Use a level, wouldja?


This is how it will go when we open?


That’s why we rehearse it, I guess. Takes a while to clear that second scene. Hey, straight, I said!


People start reciting their lines in less than two minutes! Are you going to be ready? Where are the actors?


I only work here...

(to STAGE HANDS working sun prop)

How is Mr. Sun doing today? You guys doing alright? We got less than five minutes...


(SAM strides off, still talking behind the bridge where a golden spotlight has come on, flickering and sweeping in random directions and intervals. Enter FORTUNA from a different theater door than MR. POZZO. Young and perky, she carries an open palm-top device. She walks directly to Pozzo, opens her mouth to speak, but he speaks first.)


Fortuna, have you seen Tom, or the other actors?


Do you people know this is a dress rehearsal?


Of course. What about the actors?


Why are all these people here for a dress rehearsal?

(to audience)

Hey, do you people know this is just a dress rehearsal?


Fortuna, nobody has seen Tom today. Have you been with him?


What’s that supposed to mean?


Oh, for the love of God! I’m not trying to rehash that. As Assistant Director, I just want to know if the principal actor is here for the dress rehearsal of this scene.


Don’t be so snippety. I haven’t seen Tom, but the other actors were ready to come in, last I checked.


Good, I think we’re ready to go. Sam?

(Several props wobble as they are raised and resettled into supports.)


Sam! It’s curtain time and you’re still settling things!


Agh! You’re way too easy on them.


Sorry, Mr. Pozzo, I think we got it now.


Way! That’s why you’ll never make full director.


Okay, Sam, clear the stage. What’s that you say?


You heard me. You never tear into people, you never say the f-word, really let it fly. How about some accountability!


You think f-bombs make you a director, eh? Good thing you’re a writer, huh. Go sit down while I do my job. Sam!


Nobody takes you seriously.


We’re gone, it’s all yours!


(approaches AUDIENCE CHARACTER seated in a chair marked ‘Reserved’)

I think you’re in my seat.


Actors take your places!

(Enter JAMES HEMINGS, STEWARD, SHOPKEEPER, and PROSTITUTE, as dialogue continues. JAMES, STEWARD, and SHOPKEEPER (in doorway) take positions outside shop. PROSTITUTE slouches watchfully around lamp post.)


Excuse me? I paid for this seat!


You paid to get into a dress rehearsal? Give me a break.


Nobody told me it was a dress rehearsal!


James, you’re standing up too straight. You’re playing the part of a slave here, remember! Fortuna, just stand audience left. You can see things better there anyway. Stool!

(This last over his shoulder. A STAGE HAND immediately rushes out with a director’s chair and holds it while MR. POZZO is seated, then climbs back to stage and exits stage left. All the while, theater lights slowly dim, leaving only the stage lights and a spotlight each for POZZO and FORTUNA just below the stage. Simulated sunlight is extinguished, set to continually grow a yellowish glow from behind the bridge throughout the rest of the scene. Fog continues to swirl.)


(Addresses nearby audience, then gives up and slouches in chair)

Did anybody say to you this is a dress rehearsal?


Somebody tell Tom we’re getting started, he better be ready to come in on cue this time. Spotlight on James. James, you’re still standing too straight. Spotlight!


Too straight! Are you starting this again? We talked about it! There is no slavery at this time, in France. James Hemings is a respected person around Paris, a Dagoo figure, a... an Ahasuerus of a man!


We’re talking about a nineteen year old boy, raised a slave in Colonial America. He is the property of a man who would free only two slaves in his lifetime. This is an abject...


What are you talking about! How many facts can you get wrong? Have you read the script? Do you know this “boy”

FORTUNA (Contd.)

was mostly raised in post-revolutionary America, and besides, we’re in France now! Do you know that he is...


Would this be a good time for an f-bomb?


And that he is now a 24-year-old adult in that day, a man who has been chef de cuisine at the Hotel de Langeac for two years? This person thrashed a collector who came to the hotel back in January of the same year, and was...


Well, that might have some merit. He also had a reputation for tipping the bottle. Maybe a playwright entered his life to drive him to suicide at 36. We’ll try it your way. If I use the s-word a couple times, might we begin the scene now?

James, as you were. Start the scene!


Monsieur Hemings, I have brought you my third batch of dough, as well as my freshest loaves as requested.

(SHOPKEEPER hands packages to STEWARD)


Take care to not spill those loaves.


The third batch is always best, no? Try a sample.


Second batch is best, but you reserve that for the royal house. This will be adequate.


Tres bien! I sometimes think Monsieur Combeaux and I have taught you too well, mon ami. Please convey my compliments to the master of your house, Minister Jefferson.


Come over here, dear, and I’ll teach you something can’t be learned in a kitchen.


Ignore her. She is desperate or she would not be ON THIS SIDE OF THE BRIDGE at this time of day.


I wouldn’t mind something warm besides these loaves in my arms right now.


Careful with those loaves!


(sauntering closer)

Now that’s a dear.


I should tell you, Monsieur, that with all the unrest in Paris and surrounding countryside these days, it becomes increasingly difficult to obtain shipments of basic ingredients, even flour. It is regrettable, but the next time you come I shall have to raise the price.


I’m on this side of the bridge all the time and Monsieur Grumpy here knows it too well.


The Ambassador will not be pleased to hear of any raise in charge. Nor am I.


Why don’t you and your nice looking friend come back with me for a while? You won’t find me charging no extra.


As you know, I am enfranchised to the royal house. So don’t try any rough stuff with me, as you did with your poor language instructor, or so I hear from Monsieur Pettit.


That is no concern of yours or Pettit. Monsieur Perrault has resolved matters with the Ambassador to mutual satisfaction.


And to yours, no doubt.


My illustrious instructor has had his redingote returned to him fully restored. I will not discuss the matter further.

(At this point, the morning sky is half lit and fog proceeds to dissipate from bridge and street, though still seen swirling behind bridge. Slumped JEFFERSON resolves into clear view.)


Aw, don’t just stand there, dearie, what to do you say? I’d knock off a little extra if I could lay my hands on one of those loaves you’re carrying.


(suddenly advancing on PROSTITUTE and driving her backward to the bridge entrance, she bumping violently against the lamppost en route)

How! Many! Times! must I tell you not to harass my customers?


Don’t knock the lamppost down!


Oh, you are a brute, aren’t you?


Sorry, sweet lady, it’s all business. Maybe another time.


This is where we take our leave. Where’s, uhm, Master Tom?


Well, if you ask me, this is him right here on the bridge, slouched all dirty and useless like Mr. Bake-and-Grumpy-Shops here. He’s at least been minding his own filthy business for the last hour.



(walks to JEFFERSON, brings him erect)

Master Tom, is it you? Where have you been to be in such condition? We must get you home, put some warm broth in you!

(brief glance back at POZZO)

How did he get so muddy?


You call that an entrance? Where have you been, Tom?


Well, that was no idle oath! Just let the scene pick up from here, okay? I want to see how it plays out.


How it plays out! This is a dress rehearsal!




Right here, sir.


James, you are here! Good fellow. Good fellow.

(straightens coat as best he can, blinking while taking in surroundings)

Can’t think how I came to be in this nondescript locale. And in fact I have looked better. Chilled to the bone, to boot. I seem to have lost my hat.


It is a chill morn for early July, all right, for starting out such a warm night.


Oh, I’ve got a little whiff of something, take a swig.


Thank you, but I have some here myself. That’s it, Master Tom. Can you walk the rest of the way to the hotel, or should I call a cab? It isn’t far.


Easy for him to say.


That helps! Just let me collect myself a moment and we can leave on foot, thank you.


What happened, Tom?


Not what happened; what will! Shades of the past

and present visit me this night. Of them

I shall not speak. But this last specter shows

events about to unfold, extending far

into that undiscovered country that is

the destiny of our own. And that of France.


The night is gone now, Mr. Jefferson.

No figures haunt the breaking day to vex you.


No. This is nightfall such as no day star

to merely rise can hope to dissipate,

though Alexandrian Pharos reconstitute

her ancient stones and shudder up renewed

in fabled obelisk to ward the way

of ship on periled sea.


Of perils, sir,

you speak while honoring me by pausing here


at such a humble enterprise as mine.

Would please your Eminence to explicate

the nature of such dangers in imperiled times

like these?


Well, hear who’s talking fancy now!


A mourning figure was it, stalking tall


in shadowed silhouette and speechless,

crowned with top hat, dignified yet lanky,

his visage masked as by a shroud, eyeless,

with but the silvered knob atop his cane

made visible as though no finger grasped

its eagle head. Upraised it indicates

the way that I should go. I follow blind

to any sight save that prescribed path

through parkways strangely empty, to a wall

or curtain, a darkness cast upon the face

of formless deep as though creation were

undone. Beyond I hear the coming of

a great sound, multitudes, the voice of many

waters rushing common deluge to

that spot. And one voice cries above the din -

though whether its source be Heaven, Hell, or Earth’s

composite groan o’er all the nations and ages,

I could not tell – saying, “This is the coming


of a Next Life in the ways of humankind.

It comes of blood. Prepare ye the way of it.”

Then curtain parts to show what shades foresee:

a city dominated by the axe;

numberless victims imprisoned, awaiting doom;

so many peasants fight, most know not why;

so many homesteads in black terror weep.

It is a reign, but one of terrors seized

upon the streets of Paris like a flood.


Mon Dieu, Monsieur! This is a saying dark

and who can hear it!

(JEFFERSON returns from a trance-like state to look JAMES in the face)


James. Your hopes are known

to me. In part I share them, knowing what chains

of power wait to fasten round my hands

in service to my country. Polly, Patsy,

friends and debtors: all constrain the lure

of exile found by merely taking purse

and scrip on foot, converting daily walk

to unannounced escape, the world a house

more great than pretty Monticello’s dome.

Nay, not for me. But you...!


What say you, Tom?

JAMES (Contd.)

You deal most fairly with Sally and with me,

paying wage and tutor like free people.

We share with you in danger, ploy, and fortune,

as when the British force of Arnold came

to seize you as a traitor, wife and child

alike forfeit to the conflict entered.

I led them out of Richmond at your command.

But even here in France, where tenets of

the Freedom Principle declare us free,

we walk as slaves beside you, destined freight

of Monticello to resume our station

there. Why should we submit to that than dare

emancipating toils by staying here?


It will not work, dear Gimme. Forces born

of brightest hope transmogriphy and blacken

like burning scrolls curled to shapes of brute

malevolence that knows no subject from

another as fit object for its hate.

This is no place to found your freedom’s purchase,

nor that of Sally.


Excusing your Eminence,

but all this talk seems thin and speculating.

Why should our James return with you to certain

servitude by customed law enforced?

We like him plenty here.


Our friend the steward

speaks for doubts my own heart harbors, Tom.

What extraordinary privilege awaits

the exercise of faith you recommend?


No privilege can be sufficient, though

I should not incline to mean withholding of it.

Such trifles can arrangement make of wage

and household situation, more such fare.

No, we must make an end of slavery itself

on soil still fresh with patriot righteous blood,

a liberty of peace and safety as

no promise may afford you here.



And has your spectral visitor apprised

you of such imminent utopia?



Though I am loathe of tame acceptance for

such disappointment. I have sworn upon

the altar of God eternal hostility

against all forms of tyranny over

the mind of man. One’s moral sense must be

unusually strong, if slavery does not


make him a thief. And yet experiments

to date give pause for swift abandonment

of those raised side by side with children

of the household. Case after case

exhibits failure of liberated soul

to make his livelihood. But you can show

the method for it, Gimme. You! Confound

ungenerous visions of the turmoiled void!

Your trade and talent, literacy, empower

flight on eagle wing to place and stature

opportune with no embittered grudge

taint friendship to your former master race.


(flipping sheaf)

Hold on! Is that how it reads now, Fortuna? Nobody told me! Can’t we wait for the historical revisionists to finish revising before we re-revise them?



They went off script again, but let it go for now. Listen!


Yet none of this your vision apprehends?

What future then must occupy your land

of fragile liberties, if not this, too?


A future blessed, magnificent, though made

through dreadful enterprise and abortive justice.


But what of France and Paris? What of us?


(seeming not to hear her)

From horrid scenes of smoking France, the shade

leads on with stately hand outstretched while borne

with weight on hand invisibly set to cane.

My native land we enter though I can mark

no traverse of intervening coast or ocean.

A mist is parted, rolling to obliterate

the scene as though some silent bomb

has sent the whole to improbable ruin immediate.

In its place, as from cloudy height appears

the Earth outstretched immense, a prospect wide.

There I, Thomas Jefferson, see a continent

united from Virginia to the land

where rolls the Oregon to meet that wide

pacific world raised at the furthest sea.


I always wonder what those poor folks already

living there might think about all this.


The Indians, you mean? For kindness sake,

they must not know the cycle of absorption

and dependency prepared for their own profit,

but conciliations tendered in their own age.


The needs of Earth entire require we place

those lands in sovereign custody to build

a citadel of self-ruled people, strong,

from which to guard democracy, and that spread

through all the budding world. The people there,

through kind assimilation or removal,

must yield before this gentle providence.


This is completely out of hand! Fortuna!


He’s right. Tom, why are you so far off script?

(Ignoring them, Jefferson advances to center stage looking first into floor audience, then slowly raising vision.)


It’s here my qualms arrest, replaced with calm

exhilaration. Destiny manifest

sows cities to the banks of Mississippi

and spreads our nation reach to farthest shore,

plowing verdant soil from which the stalks

of our prosperity shall rise as guarantor

of liberties enshrined. Ten-part amendment,

about to pass its legislative trial,

will make more peaceful way to close the hand

of freeborn men and women on rights secured,

than waits the cause of slaves emancipated.

Here the vision regains its blackest aspect;


the spectral figure, its mien most terrible.

A telescope of years distills the conflict

finding full expression in the blast

of Armageddon rifts that cry, dumb mouths

in all the hundred thousands of our wounds.

“Behold! This is the First Death! Many shall

its maw enclose before the debt of blood

be sate and writs of liberties more dear

ensue for those who plowed beneath the whip.”

This, renewed in the voice that cried before,

is followed fast by blast more terrible,

clarion of a dark archangel. Before

me rises in garments shaken like the seven

thunders that spake at Patmos, a towering woman

of pitiless visage wielding a sword, her stride

calamity. She walks among the might

of men on either side and spares not any

till seen like Israel from collapsing seas

the called out remnant shedding shackle and

iron emerge from behind her billowed train.

(Jefferson pauses panting, looking from face to face.)


Say on, Master Tom. What happened then?


The numbers abruptly swell and swarm around

her ankles, then dissipate and are gone.

I raise my eyes and find the visage changed

like the aspect of Justice softened, seeing afar.

She calms. Her garments cease their turbulence.

Draped arm lifts the sword before a rising sun

catching its fire, consumed until it is

a torch brandished high, the beams reborn

as spikes in her tiara, seven like

the continents to whom she beacons, speaks

with silent lips: “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Here my guide steps between this vision and me.

Abrupt as Virgil’s exit from purging mount,

the spectral cloak swirls lightless, ocean huge.

All vanishes with windsome collapse to nothing,

with me left to step my unremembered way.

(Several seconds of silence.)


You spoke of France, sir.


Yes, what of her?

(MR. POZZO throws up hands, disgustedly dropping the “script.”)


The script! Doesn’t anybody know one thing about the script! What’s going on? Somebody answer me!

(FORTUNA and POZZO spotlights go out.)


Please, sir. What of Paris?


I see smoke

low, crawling like an ebon blight

beneath the towers of churches where no prayers

are said. And a silence in Heaven. Still falls the rain.


Dark are these sayings, Tom. We don’t understand.


He showed me all at vision’s misborn starting.

Before the flight across the sea, before

the blackened wall, we paused beside the central

garden haunted by statue and gurgling fountain,

stilled-water octagon shed its troubling angel,

where rose a tower of bleeding wood that all

were compelled to worship. An edifice,

they called it Guillotine. From out its skirt

there radiated absent light. All who touched

that ink effusion fell into shadow drear

and seen no more. And climbing through slant beams

of waning moon, its whetted blade renewed

to downward smite a litany of souls

from every station. I close my eyes and see

it fresh: fall of Bastille, bruising mobs.

Along the Paris streets the death-carts rumble.

Such anguish rules from palace to hovel most base!


What? All of Paris, you say? And what of my

sweet mother on the outskirt with my brother?

Must they fall also to this horror you paint?


A care, sir. Your ghost tale chills the fog anew

from out the river’s banks and fills this poor

girl’s heart with terrified misgiving. Have you

no word of hope to pacify outstripped fear?

Come sit down, dear. ‘Tis but a tale of fury.


Just this.

This retributive instrument shall cease

of imminent use, expiated in a human

rush like water releasing oppressors new

upon the corpses of the old with the innocent

slain with them. But after these shall come

a Paris beautiful in cloudy splendor, freed

from those oppressions and envisioned abyss.

(JEFFERSON turns to face them and the sun newly risen between end of bridge and lamppost, completes his lines with arm outstretched.)

Let Roland wind his horn once more, for this

crusade surpasses Charelemagne’s in glory.

Bright freedom beacons through the misted veil

for France has lit her lamps throughout the land!

It is a bridge of light descended to us

with the river sparkling under. Hark!

Shall not the nightingale forsake her piping

for the lark, and she in full throated song

ascend our glimmered sphere on extended wing!

(In the silence following soliloquy, spotlight on JEFFERSON makes a wavering motion. After a moment, JAMES advances to take his arm.)


Tom, why don’t we go now? You could use some cleaning up.

(glances at the audience)

Uhm, Steward, come take his other arm. Let’s get him out of here. Don’t spill the loaves!


Nor fishes, eh? No multitudes will these baskets feed!

(PROSTITUTE dives into vacated spotlight to scoop up a dropped loaf of bread. She begins to gnaw one end while still crouched, slowly rises while stage hands gather murmuring at right portion of the bridge and the other actors exit. JEFFERSON is escorted past the shops by JAMES and STEWARD to exit stage left. In the meantime, SHOPKEEPER extinguishes exterior lamp, opens the shop door, then pauses gazing across the bridge.)


Panem et circenses! I think this rabble brings its own circus to play soon. Take care, dear, to get you home. God

pleasing, may the Ambassador be wrong! Such times. Who knows how it will go?

(Exits closing shop door behind him. PROSTITUTE drops the bread and looks around her in confusion as stage hands cross the bridge to dismantle the shops, exiting to all wings with triumphant cries. She looks back and forth between the spots where MR. POZZO and FORTUNA had been.)


What do I do now? What are my lines?

(SAM and SECOND VOICE re-enter from opposite sides, together extinguish streetlamp, then begin to dismantle it. Fog resumes flooding stage, as sun goes from golden to red-orange.)


(off stage right, fading)

This has been illuminating. Excellent work.


(off stage left, fading)

The Prostitute must hold the stage now. Hold it. You’re doing fine. Hold it...


What are you doing? Don’t go away! Who is in charge here?

(SAM and SECOND VOICE exit with the lamppost crossing the bridge in the direction of offstage cheers. Floor lights extinguish as they leave and cheering abruptly stops, leaving only the spotlight on PROSTITUTE and sun directed like a spotlight just above the floor audience. As she utters her closing lines, the sun begins to switch from dim to bright, starting at one second intervals, but increasing to strobe speed, its spotlight decreasing diameter throughout final soliloquy directed at the audience.)


You people! You’ve got to tell me! You’re all that’s left now. I don’t even know which way they took the shops and lighting. So what do we do? Am I supposed to fix it all?

(Sun goes out. Spotlight on PROSTITUTE narrows to only cover the lip area.)


Are you there? How do we rebuild the set? Even the bread is gone now. Is anybody there? Help me! Please! Help!



previously unpublished
© 2015 David W. Parsley
Parsley Poetry Collection

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