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  • Owen Thomas Webb

That’s the Price of Living


That’s the Price of Living


MILTON is trying to relax in his living room. Wearing his brown dressing gown, slippers and stripey night cap, he is putting off going to bed, because he doesn’t get much time to himself during the day. There is a Chesterfield centre stage and two armchairs on either side of it. In front is a table with stacks of paper money on it.


MILTON Addresses the auditorium, as though musing to himself, while pouring himself a glass of whiskey from his drinks cabinet.


MILTON It’s a busy life, being successful. I don’t get much time to myself, the firm takes up most of my morning till evening, and things can get on top of you if you let your hair down for a moment in this economy. It can get pretty lonely, too.

But I can’t complain. Business is booming, and with the way things are these days, I’ve got no deprivation of staff looking to do a hard day’s work. The hardest day’s work they’ve ever done in their lives, in fact. Sometimes, the hardest day’s work they ever will do.

That’s the price of living, these days. A place for everyone and everyone has their place, or at least that’s true for those whom I want to employ. I can’t give my money away to anyone, they’ve got to earn it. Grinding away, in the clerk’s office or on the factory floor, ensuring that my accounts are up, up, and away during these downward times. That’s the best way, I like to think, for them to ensure their own wealth grows at the end of each month.

They call that trickle-down economics. I get richer, and the whiskey trickles down my throat at the end of the night. That’s my compensation for the things I sacrificed to be so financially successful. It doesn’t come easy, this kind of wealth. It takes years of sacrifice and dedication to build a firm that can call itself such a pillar of society as mine.

‘Milton’s, Trading Since…’ well, whenever it was that my father set it up. He was a successful man, too, was my father. Always a step ahead of the market, a true pioneer. He called it the ‘golden age’, his day. He told me, ‘You won’t see times like this again, my son, such times to be a captain of industry.’ I used to wonder if he was right.

He gulps his glass in one go. There’s a knock on the door.

MILTON My God, who could that be at this hour? Leave me be! This time I’ll catch you! This time, you won’t harass me and get away with it!

He goes to the door. It creaks open. He sees nothing.

MILTON Who goes there?

There is no one at the door. MILTON closes the door and sighs with relief but hears knocking again. He searches his living room for the source of the knocking. MARX enters from stage left. MILTON, walking backwards from stage right, bumps into MARX.

MILTON Who in God’s name are you? And what are you doing in my living room?

Again, addressing the audience as though musing to himself.

MILTON I’m in my dressing gown.

MARX Don’t bother yourself about that, my friend. It is of no interest to me what you are wearing, for though it may come as a disappointment to you, you are not my type. No, you’ve nothing to be ashamed of in my presence.

I am Marx, a humble dweller of the material world, but I find myself without money on my person, and in need of a place to spend the night.

He turns to the drinks cabinet.

Could I be so bold as to beseech you? And perhaps, in turn, I could oblige you of your need for company on this long and frightful night? You seem to possess no deprivation of fineries here.

MILTON Erm... yes, I suppose, help yourself. After all, why should we in the civilized world deliberately deprive our fellow man of anything?

MARX Exactly! Exactly! You’re a fine gentleman! What’s in the cabinet?

MILTON Oh, whisky! Whisky! Come. Marx, was it? Is that a foreign name? Yes, it can get lonely here and as strange as you are I’m grateful for the company. But how did you know that?

MARX Good, a strong drink makes for the best sleep, and for the best conversation, eh?

MILTON Erm, quite, quite.

MILTON pours a drink for MARX, and a second drink for himself. MARX sits.

MARX And what do you suppose we could talk about, on this long, long night?

MILTON You propose we stay up the whole night? Well, I suppose I did invite you in. Or did I...?

MARX interrupts MILTON’s musing on how exactly MARX got into the house.

MARX Let me tell you, my friend, a ghost story, or perhaps less a ghost story, and more a story about dead souls.

MILTON Dead souls?

MARX Dead souls. Souls with no ideal for living. Do you know of such souls? Let me tell you a story about such dead souls, my friend, er…

MILTON Milton, of the firm Milton’s.

MARX The very same? I came past your establishment on my journey.

MILTON Tremendous coincidence, yes? Fine establishment, wouldn’t you say?

MARX Business booming?

MILTON Indeed.

MARX The huddled masses at your feet asking for work?

MILTON The huddled masses were never so enthusiastic about work as now.

Pause. MARX lowers his drink.

MARX Let me tell you that story, Mr. Milton, about dead souls.

MILTON I’m not interested in ghost stories.

MARX Oh but this, Mr. Milton, is no ghost story, and I get the feeling that you might know exactly what I’m talking about when I tell you that it is a story that will frighten you, nonetheless.

Let me tell you the story of the dead soul who wished he owned the whole world.

MILTON Now I’m intrigued.

MARX There once was a man, who wished such a thing, and his dedication to making this wish come true was profound. He invested intelligently, bought property, and charged his tenants dearly, though he cared for them less so. He dedicated the entirety of his existence to the pursuit of profit, purchasing whole industries, making monopolies out of everything under the sun, such that no one could exchange a penny without it finding its way to him, and when he owned the whole world, he decided to take a walk through his empire.

Expecting to see the huddled masses crowding at his feet, what he saw when he stepped out of the door left him with a feeling of such profound emptiness that he felt his soul itself had died. He found his world going about its day, completely unaware of the fact that it was his world, and he had the deeds to the property to prove it.

When he showed the deeds to the people he met in the street, they looked at him with befuddlement, like a madman had begun to mumble at them. Nothing could convince them of his ownership of the very air they breathed, and the very soil in which they grew their crops, so he asked to speak to the highest authority in the whole world, and the peasant with his pitchfork, the proletariat with her hammer, and the artists with their pens and paintbrushes sounded in unison, ‘It is I.’ The man who owned the world was taken aback. He began to do the one thing that he knew how to do, which was to negotiate a price, but no matter the number, the people of the world he owned wouldn’t listen. ‘What would I want with paper?’ said the peasant. ‘Give it to the artist to paint on.’ For the man who owned the world, hearing this was too much to bear. How could a world without a need for money come about? When did parliament pass that law? Why had he not received compensation for the nationalization of his property? His soul became a dead soul, walking through the world but not part of it, unable to comprehend a world he did not own.

What do you make of that, Mr. Milton?

Pause.

MILTON I think you are a man of peculiar mind to come into a stranger’s home and tell him such a nonsensical story. Owner of the world? Nonsense. What point do you intend to prove by suggesting we discuss such theoretical matters as capital coming to be the dominion of one man? I should not allow it myself as a competitor to this fellow.

I own only my firm, that is true for most of us poor industrialists.

MARX I think there is more to this metaphor than you are capable of confessing to yourself, isn’t there Mr. Milton? There is some truth to the statement that owning souls makes your own a dead soul.

Knocking

MARX This knocking, do you know what it is?

MILTON No, but it’s probably nothing.

MARX It is not nothing, Mr. Milton, when it comes to you every night at midnight, and prevents you from sleeping. Is that not so?

MILTON You know as well as I do that children play these sorts of tricks, it’s nothing.

MILTON’s hand is shaking as he takes his drink.

MARX Something is troubling you, Mr. Milton, and it seems to relate to matters of social class. I think you possess a guilty conscience.

MILTON What exactly are you daring to suggest? That I’m guilty of something?

MARX I am led to believe that a man died while working for your firm, Mr. Milton, and no one has reported it.

MILTON is silent.

MARX A man died for your profit, and his dead soul haunts you, doesn’t it? That’s why you drink: to keep the dead soul from knocking.

Knocking continues

MARX A man died in your factory, and somewhere in that heart of yours, you know that what you do is soulless, don’t you? You know that those huddled masses out there, as you call them, don’t come to work to participate in some esteemed capitalist enterprise, out to make the profit of empires, but to keep themselves on the straight and narrow of this society. That is why they do not tell the world of the death that occurred so that your bank statement might increase. They do not wish to draw your ire by acknowledging this. I think they do not work for you, Mr. Milton, I think they curse you.

And that’s why you’ve not been seen on the factory floor now for some time, isn’t it? You can’t bear to show your face to those people, whom you oppress, whom you suppose you own.

Knock, knock, knock

MARX You hear that sound every night now, Mr. Milton, don’t you? Ever since that man died, you’ve not been able to get the guilt out of your head, the intense feeling of regret for what might have been in a man’s life, which was stolen from the world. That’s why you don’t sleep, isn’t it? That’s why you dare not ask me to leave.

Knock, knock, knock, knock

MARX Because you dare not open the door.

MILTON Death is the price of living, Mr. Marx, I do not fear it, and I do not bear the burden of it; it is nature’s law.

MARX But that man did not die a natural death, Mr. Milton. The dead soul knocks on your door because it died in the pursuit of profit, on the charge for capital. In other words, in pursuit of fulfilling your ideal for living.

MILTON Is that so? Then if I must do so to end his knocking, let me show you, now, what is worth more to me, my stacks of banknotes, or a man’s life. Let me show you that the burden of a man’s death does not rest upon my conscience!

MILTON begins to throw the banknotes stacked on his table into the auditorium.

MILTON Do you see, Mr. Marx, what kind of a man I am? I am a good man. I can prove to you that my money is not worth more to me than that man’s life. See me throw it into the fireplace, see it burn, for after all it is nothing but paper ­– isn’t that right, mysterious Mr. Marx? I’ve done nothing of any sort to any man’s life.

Listen to me, dead soul! If you are real, I offer you everything, but I ask only that you don’t haunt me! We’ve no quarrel with one another!

There’s a knock on the door. This time final, beckoning MILTON to come.

MARX Go on, go and meet him. Your dead soul.

MILTON This is outrageous, he’s not there, he’s not knocking, a dead man does not haunt me! The man who died in my factory does not walk these streets!

MILTON flings open the door. There is no one there.

MARX Oh, Mr. Milton, what dead man? Why? Didn’t I say? The dead soul who haunts you is none other than yours, and yours alone.



The End

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