The Anatomy Lesson: An Explication

CHARACTERS:

DIRECTOR

MAN

WOMAN

(An almost barren stage. The lights come up on the DIRECTOR at his lectern, stage right, getting ready for his lecture. He checks his watch, his microphone, takes a sip from a glass of water, checks his notes, looks at the audience expectantly. Silence. Lights increase in intensity.)

DIRECTOR

Improvisation is key.

(Lights stage left where MAN and WOMAN sit regarding each other. With no warning, WOMAN reaches out and slaps MAN’s face.)

DIRECTOR

Oh, good. Conflict.

MAN

Why did you do that?

WOMAN

You are an obstacle in my path.

DIRECTOR

The actor’s purpose can be reduced to one question: “What do I want?” Often, the objective is simple: to overcome an obstacle.

WOMAN

You are an obstacle in my path.

DIRECTOR

To find a reason for being on the stage.

MAN

But I love you.

DIRECTOR
To find a reason for being.

(MAN and WOMAN regard the DIRECTOR in silence.)

The actor can communicate without words. Dialogue is secondary to movement. The actor’s body, his face, the intensity of his desire often renders language superfluous. This is the ultimate impasse: entirely dependent on words, the language play becomes unnecessary.

MAN

Are you writing this down?

DIRECTOR

Tired.

WOMAN

How would I know it happened if I didn’t?

DIRECTOR

Dead.

(Fade on MAN and WOMAN. Long pause.)

Let me demonstrate. Two characters in a room.

(Lights on MAN and WOMAN regarding each other.)

Standing. No props. What we need is a ground situation. Something elemental. Big. Love, for example. Or hate.

MAN

I met her in a café next to the train station. It was raining. She had forgotten her umbrella, so I offered her mine.

(To WOMAN)

Please, take it. I’ll be ok.

WOMAN

Are you sure? I could just –

MAN

No. You’ll get drenched. Catch a cold. Catch your death.

WOMAN

What a strange thing to say…

DIRECTOR

In the random encounter between a man and a woman, the man’s biggest fear is that he will be ridiculed. The woman’s fear is that she will get killed.

WOMAN

What a strange thing to say.

MAN

I’m sorry.

(Pause)

Would you like a cup of coffee?

(Pause)

She said yes. The rest is history.

WOMAN

The slow death of passion.

MAN

That’s not what I meant.

WOMAN

D of P. It happens.

MAN

What are you doing?

WOMAN

I want out. I have a lover. He’s better than you. FYI.

MAN

I can’t believe this. With no warning…I thought we were happy. I thought we were meant to be.

WOMAN

You were happy. You never asked how I felt.

(Pause)

We met in a café next to the train station. He had been following me, and I ran inside to ask for help. He approached me. Extended his hand. I screamed. I was afraid he was going to kill me.

MAN

How can you lie like that?

(WOMAN laughs.)

Stop laughing.

(WOMAN laughs.)

Stop laughing at me! Stop!

(MAN grabs WOMAN and covers her mouth with his hand. She struggles. He holds his hand tight over her mouth and nose. WOMAN stops struggling.)

Get up.

(Pause)

Stop playing.

(Pause)

You’re not scaring me. I am not scared.

(MAN holds WOMAN in his arms. Rocks her gently. Cries.)

DIRECTOR

And fade.

(Pause)

Good. Now let’s analyze the scene.

(MAN and WOMAN stand regarding each other)

The actor advances towards his purpose.

MAN

Please take my umbrella. It’s brutal outside. You’ll catch your death.

(Pause)

She was so beautiful.

DIRECTOR

He deals with the circumstance, identifies the obstacle and overcomes it.

WOMAN

I’m not in love with you. I want out.

DIRECTOR

The actor achieves a maximum of expression with an active verb.

MAN

But I love you!

(WOMAN laughs.)

DIRECTOR

He connects with the other actor.

MAN

Stop laughing! Stop laughing at me!

(MAN covers WOMAN’s mouth with his hand. She struggles. He holds his hand in place. She stops struggling. He lays her body on the floor, gently.)

DIRECTOR

He adjusts to the relationship.

(MAN sits in the chair, crosses his legs, regards WOMAN’s body.)

He radiates and receives. He concentrates. He finds his Deep Jungle and emotes.

MAN

(Breaks character)

His what?

DIRECTOR

(Patiently)

Every artist is connected to a space buried within his psyche: his Deep Jungle. This is where he runs with tigers. Here, he is Tarzan.

(MAN lets out a Tarzan yell. WOMAN gets up.)

WOMAN

I want a raise.

DIRECTOR

What do you mean?

WOMAN

If I am to make a fool of myself next to Tarzan, here, I want a raise.

MAN

I don’t have to yell. I was connecting to my Deep Jungle. I was freeing my instrument. I was taking leave of my senses.

WOMAN

Well put.

MAN

I didn’t mean that. Why do you make me feel so small?

WOMAN

Because you are small. You are a small man. You think you are powerful and attractive, but in fact you are ridiculous.

MAN

Did you ever love me?

WOMAN

I don’t know. Perhaps. But then one day I saw you. Your colossal insecurity, your ambition, your pettiness. The way you attack those weaker than you. The way you swell inside your clothes.

(Pause)

The way you eat your soup.

MAN

Do you hate me?

WOMAN

No. Contempt, more like. Repulsion. Yes, that’s it. You repel me. You are repellent.

MAN

Like a raincoat. Protective. I am your shelter from the rain.

(Pause)

We met in a café next to the train station. She was late that day. It had been raining.

WOMAN

Have you been waiting long?

MAN

I just got in.

(Pause)

I had been waiting for hours. I would have done anything for her. She was so beautiful.

DIRECTOR

Circumstances are important. They let the actor know what’s at stake: what happens if he loses an argument…moves out…gets what he wants. What motivates him to say a line, perform an action. What price he has to pay. What is at risk.

(Pause. DIRECTOR takes a sip of water.)

He wanders through his Deep Jungle. He thinks: I am scared, or elated, or overwhelmed. He thinks: these are unnecessary emotions. He thinks: I have to act. He rests.

WOMAN

Listen, I have to tell you something.

DIRECTOR
Necessary verbs will make him act. Action is more important than character. Actors do. He needs to do something.

MAN

I am not being used.

WOMAN

You want me to use you?

MAN

That’s not what I mean. Why do you always change my words?

DIRECTOR

Last point: character. When the actor reads a character’s lines on paper, he may not detect any movement. Psychological gestures are lost on him. He must try again. He must look under the surface for the delicate hints. He must look for change.

WOMAN

I’m not in love with you. I made a mistake. I’m sorry.

MAN

What?

WOMAN

I want out. We don’t get along. Working together was a mistake.

MAN

We work together just fine.

WOMAN

How can you be so blind? Listen to me: we’re not fine. I don’t love you. I’m leaving.

MAN

No.

WOMAN

I’m sorry if this hurts you. I never wanted to hurt you, but I can’t stay here.

MAN

Who is he? Do I know him?

WOMAN

Does it matter?

MAN

These scenes are so trivial on the stage. The same dialogue, the same suffering…Why does it hurt so much?

WOMAN

Because this is happening now. It’s happening to you. This is your story.

MAN

Don’t leave me.

WOMAN

Good bye.

MAN

Don’t leave me!

(WOMAN turns to leave. MAN shoots her. She falls.)

DIRECTOR

The actor must take into account the type of play to be performed. Naturally, melodrama offers certain advantages – exaggerated sentiment, large, sweeping gestures – but tragedies are better. The main action happens off stage. Does wonders for the budget.

MAN

I need some help here!

(DIRECTOR and MAN bring in a long table. They pick up the body and lay it on the table. For a moment, they lean in to look at the body and their posture should remind the audience of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson. Then DIRECTOR resumes his place at the lectern and addresses the audience.)

DIRECTOR

The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Nicolaes Tulp. Rembrandt.

(Looks at MAN who is still contemplating the body.)

We learn so much from the Old Masters. Self-reliance, and greed, perhaps even a certain pride in the idea of well-being. And yet, such an extraordinary contrast between the living and the dead, the stiff silhouette of the cadaver and the anxious movement of the actor watching it. This is a tragic mirror: the body in motion is confronted with the body in death. The spectacular lines of the silhouette are now completely still, the face once full of life is quiet, the mouth shut, the eyes closed.

MAN

She was so beautiful…

DIRECTOR

The play is coming to an end, and when the applause dies out, we hope that the same events will happen with the same intensity on this very stage tomorrow, and the next evening, and the next…There’s comfort in repetition.

MAN

(Takes off his jacket, relaxes. After a while he walks to the table and looks at WOMAN.)

I thought that went well…How about a drink?

(There is no answer or movement. MAN approaches WOMAN and touches her hand.)

She’s so cold. It’s as if…

DIRECTOR

The death scene is the actor’s favorite part. It requires skill and effort, a certain sense of abandonment not easy to achieve.

MAN

Get up! Stop playing. Talk to me…

DIRECTOR

Often, the intensity of the scene brings about certain –

MAN

(Almost inaudibly)

Don’t leave me.

DIRECTOR

…risks.

(Fade on MAN frozen in the Anatomy Lesson pose, leaning over WOMAN’s body. DIRECTOR takes a sip of water, checks his watch, smiles, almost embarrassed. Fade on DIRECTOR.)

THE END




Dayana Stetco teaches Drama at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She is the Director of the interdisciplinary Milena Theatre Group. Her plays have been produced in her native country, Romania, in the US and the UK. Her collection of plays, Seducing Velasquez and Other Plays, is forthcoming from Ahadada Books.

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