THE SET is in extremely vulgar and commonplace taste, rather in the manner of sets used in operettas.
A corner of a park. Five benches grouped in a semicircle facing the audience. Lampposts, trees etc. suitably disposed. Black backdrop.
It is night. Five couples on the five benches are rapturously embracing.
A repulsive-looking OLD WOMAN enters, picking up cigarette butts. She goes on collecting them in the area around the five couples, quite oblivious to their discomfort, finally making her way to the bench in the center, where she sits. A shabbily dressed young POET comes under the lamppost and, drunkenly propping his body against it, observes the OLD WOMAN.
The couple on the center bench presently stand up in anger, with expressions of annoyance on their faces, and leave arm-in-arm. The OLD WOMAN, taking sole possession of the bench, spreads out a sheet of newspaper and starts counting the butts she has gathered.
OLD WOMAN One and one make two, two and two make four…. (She holds a stub up against the light and, determining that it is a fairly long one, goes to the couple at the left to ask for a light. She smokes for a while. W hen the cigarette burns down to a stub she grinds it out, throws it on the paper with the others, and begins to count again.) One and one make two, two and two make four….
POET (Comes up behind the OLD WOMAN and watches what she is doing.)
OLD WOMAN (her eyes still looking down at the paper) Want a smoke? I'll give you one if you want it. (She chooses a rather long stub and hands it to him.)
POET Thanks. (Takes out a match, lights the cigarette, and smokes.)
OLD WOMAN Is there something else? Have you got something to say to me?
POET No, not especially.
OLD WOMAN I know what you are. You're a poet. That's your business, isn't it?
POET How well you know. Yes, I write poems once in a while. There's no doubt but I'm a poet. But that doesn't make it a business.
OLD WOMAN Oh? You mean it's not a business unless your poems sell? (She looks up at the young man's face for the first time.) You're still young, aren't yOU? But you haven't much longer to live. The mark of death is on your face.
POET (not surprised) What were you in former life-a physiognomist?
OLD WOMAN Maybe. I've seen so many human faces I've become sick of them…. Sit down. You seem a little shaky on your feet.
POET (Sits; coughs.) I'm drunk, that's why.
OLD WOMAN Stupid. You should keep both feet planted firmly on the ground, at least as long as you're alive.
POET You know, there's something that bothers me so much I can't stand it any more. Why do you come here every night at the same time and drive away whoever's here by sitting yourself on a bench?
OLD WOMAN Is this the bench you're complaining about? I don't suppose you can be a tramp. What do you want? Do you collect money from people who sit here?
POET No, it's simply that the bench can't talk for itself, so I'm talking for it.
OLD WOMAN (turning her attention from him) I'm not chasing anybody away. When I sit down they run away, that's all. Anyway, this bench is made for four people to sit on.
POET But at night it's for the use of lovers! Every evening when I pass through this park and I see a couple on every bench, it makes me feel so wonderfully reassured. I go 'by on tiptoes. Even if I'm tired or, as it happens once in a while, even if I feel inspiration coming over me, and I want to sit down so I can collect my thoughts, I refrain, in deference to them.... And you, old lady, since when have you been coming here?
OLD WOMAN Oh, I see now. This is your little area-your special preserve-where you do your business.
POET My what?
OLD WOMAN This is where you forage for things to put in your poems.
POET Don't be absurd. The park, the lovers, the lamposts-do you think I'd use such vulgar material?
OLD WOMAN In time it won't be vulgar. There's nothing that wasn't once vulgar. In time it'll change again.
POET What extraordinary things you come out with. If that's the case, I ought to deliver an impassioned plea on behalf of the bench.
OLD WOMAN How tiresome you are. All you can say is that my sitting here is an eyesore, isn't that it?
POET No-it's a profanation!
OLD WOMAN Young people really enjoy arguments.
POET Listen to me. . . . I am just what I seem, a threepenny poet, without even a woman who'll look at me. But there's something I respect-the world as reflected in the eyes of young people who love each other, a hundred times more beautiful than what they actually see-that I respect. Look, they're not the least aware we're talking about them. They've climbed up high as the stars. You can see the glint of starlight under their eyes, next to the cheeks. . . . And this bench, this bench is a kind of ladder mounting to heaven, the highest lookout tower in the world, a glorious observation point. When a man sits here with his sweetheart he can see the lights of the cities halfway across the globe. But if (climbs on the bench) I stand here all by myself, I can't see a thing…. Oh, I do see something-lots of benches, somebody waving a flashlight must be a policeman. A bonfire. Beggars crouching around the fire. The headlights of a car. They've passed each other now and are heading toward the tennis courts. What was that? A car full of flowers. Performers returning from a concert? Or a funeral procession? (He gets down from the bench and sits.) That's all I can see.
OLD WOMAN What rubbish. Why in the world do you respect such things? It's that same silly nature of yours which makes you write sentimental poems that nobody will buy.
POET And that's exactly why I never invade this bench. As long as you and I are occupying it, the bench is just so many dreary slats of wood, but if they sit here it can become a memory. It can become softer than a sofa, and warm with the sparks thrown off by living people. . . . When you sit here it becomes cold as a grave, like a bench put together out of slabs of tombstones. I can't bear that.
OLD WOMAN You're young and inexperienced, you still haven't the eyes to see things. You say the benches where they sit, those snotty-faced shop clerks with their whores, are alive? Don't be silly. They're petting on their graves. Look, how deathly pale their faces look in the greenish street light that comes through the leaves. Their eyes are shut, the men and women both. Don't they look like corpses? They're dying as they make love. (Sniffs around her.) There's a smell of flowers, all right. The flowers in the park are very fragrant at night, just like those inside a coffin. Those lovers are all buried in the smell of the flowers, like so many dead men. You and I are the only live ones.
POET (Laughs.) What a joke! You think you're more alive than they are?
OLD WOMAN Of course I do. I'm ninety-nine years old, and look how healthy I am.
OLD WOMAN (turning her face into the light) Take a good look.
POET Horrible wrinkles! (Just then the man of the couple on the bench to the far right yawns.)
WOMAN What's the matter? What makes you so rude?
MAN Come on, let's be going. We'll catch cold.
WOMAN You are disagreeable. You must be very bored.
MAN No, I just remembered something funny.
WOMAN What is it?
MAN I was wondering whether my hen would lay an egg tomorrow, and it suddenly began to worry me.
WOMAN What's the meaning of that?
MAN There isn't any meaning.
WOMAN You and I are finished. That's what it means.
MAN Oh-there goes the last streetcar. We'll have to hurry.
(She rises and stares at the man.) What awful taste you have in neckties! (The man does not answer. He hurries the woman along and they exit.)
OLD WOMAN At last-they've come back to life.
POET The skyrockets have gone out. How can you say they've come back to life?
I know what the face looks like of someone who's come back to life-I've seen it often enough. It wears an expression of horrible boredom, and that expression is what I like.... Long ago, when I was young, I never had the sensation of being alive unless my head was all awhirl. I only felt I was living when I forgot myself completely. Since then I have realized my mistake. When the world seems wonderful to live in, and the meanest little flower looks big as a dome, and flying doves sing as they go by with human voices ... when, I mean, everyone in the whole world says "Good morning" joyously to everyone else, and things you've been searching for ten years turn up in the back of a cupboard, and every girl looks like an empress ... when you feel as if roses are blooming on the dead rose trees, then-idiotic things like that happened to me once every ten days when I was young, but now when I think of it, I realize I was dying as it happened.... The worse the liquor, the quicker you get drunk. In the midst of my drunkenness, in the midst of those sentimental feelings and my tears, I was dying. . . . Since then, I've made it a rule not to drink. That's the secret of my long life.
(teasing her) Oh! And tell me, old lady, what is your reason for living?
My reason? Don't be ridiculous! Isn't the very fact of existing a reason in itself? I'm not a horse that runs because it wants a carrot. Horses, anyway, run because that's the way they're made.
POET "Run, run, little horse, looking neither right nor left"?
OLD WOMAN "Never moving once your eyes from your shadow's track."
POET When the sun goes down the shadow grows long.
The shadow gets crooked. It gets lost in the darkness of evening. (As they talk the lovers on the benches around them all exit.)
POET Old lady, let me ask you something. Who are you?
Once I was a woman called Komachi.
All the men who said I was beautiful have died. Now I feel for sure that any man who says I am beautiful will die.
POET (Laughs.) Well, I'm safe. I didn't meet you until you were ninety-nine.
That's right, you're lucky.... But I suppose a fool like you thinks every beautiful woman gets ugly as soon as she grows old. Hah! That's a great mistake. A beautiful woman is always a beautiful woman. If I look ugly now, all it means is that I am an ugly beauty. After having been told so many times by everybody how lovely I looked, I have found it too much of a nuisance during the past seventy or eighty years to start thinking of myself as being anything but beautiful. I still see myself as a raving beauty.
(aside) What a heavy burden it must be to have once been lovely. (To the OLD WOMAN.) I can understand how you feel. A man who's once gone to war reminisces about the war all the rest of his life. Of course you were beautiful. ...
OLD WOMAN (stamping her foot) Was? I still am beautiful.
POET Yes, yes, I understand. Why don't you tell me something about the old days? Eighty years ago, or was it ninety? (He counts on his fingers.) Tell me what happened eighty years ago.
Eighty years ago . . . I was nineteen. Captain Fukakusa -he was at Staff Headquarters-was courting me.
POET Shall I pretend that I'm Captain what's-his-name?
OLD WOMAN Don't flatter yourself. He was a hundred times the man you are.... Yes, I told him I would grant what he desired if he visited me a hundred times. It was on the hundredth night. There was a ball at the Rokumei Hall, and simply everybody was there. I had become a little fatigued with all the heat of the party, and I was resting myself a moment on a bench in the garden….
(A waltz melody, faint at first but gradually becoming louder, is heard. T he black backdrop is drawn aside to reveal indistinctly the Rokumei Hall, a ballroom built in Victorian architecture. In the foreground is a garden. The set is painted rather like the backgrounds which photographers formerly used for their pictures.)
OLD WOMAN (looking offstage) See! All the most boring people of the day have come.
Those splendid-looking ladies and gentlemen?
OLD WOMAN Of course. Shall we dance a waltz together to keep up with the others?
POET Waltz with you?
OLD WOMAN You mustn't forget! You're Captain Fukakusa.
(Three young couples wearing costumes of the 1880'/ enter waltzing. They move to where the two others are dancing. The waltz ends. Everyone gathers around the OLD WOMAN.)
WOMAN A Komachi-how pretty you are tonight!
WOMAN B I envy you so. Where do you get your clothes? (She fingers the OLD WOMAN'S filthy rags.)
OLD WOMAN I sent my measurements to Paris and they made it for me there.
WOMAN A AND B Did you really?
WOMAN C It's the only way. There's always something slightly crude about any dress made by a Japanese.
MAN A One has no choice. One simply must wear imported clothes.
MAN B Yes, that's true for men too. Did you notice the frock coat the Prime Minister is wearing tonight? It was made in London-the home of gentlemen's fashions.
(The women chatting and laughing surround the OLD WOMAN and the POET. The three men sit on the end bench and talk.)
MAN C Komachi is certainly lovely.
By moonlight even an old witch would look beautiful.
MAN B Komachi is one woman you can't say that about. She looks beautiful even in broad daylight. And when you see her in the moonlight, she's an angel, an angel from heaven.
MAN A She's not one to give in easily to any man. I suppose that's why there are so many amusing stories about her.
Copyright © 2009 by Yukio Mishima. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.