Explanation: I have for a while now been working on a series of short plays based loosely on historical events and/or famous historical figures. I call the collection “This Sort of Happened.” This is one I wrote about a real incident involving Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. I used 2 or 3 lines from the actual incident (as written about in Adams’s diary and some other places), but the rest I made up based on what I learned through research into the two men’s personalities and lives. Plays are better performed than read, so grab a friend and read it together 🙂 Also, I plan to eventually post an audio version of me and another actor reading it. Enjoy!
THEORY OF COLDS
Benjamin Franklin – A balding statesman, 70 years of age
John Adams – A somewhat rotund statesman in his early 40s
True story: In September of 1776, ADAMS and FRANKLIN were dispatched to Staten Island on a diplomatic mission no one expected to succeed: to negotiate some sort of peace with the crown through one of its Admirals. On the way to the fruitless summit, the two men seek a night of sleep in a New Jersey inn, only to find themselves forced to share a bed, a more common occurrence at the time.
It is evening. ADAMS and FRANKLIN are moving about and in and out of the room as they prepare for bed, each in a nightgown and nightcap. The room (walls can be suggested) is tiny, barely bigger than the single bed. There is a single window (this can be suggested if necessary, but the scene will play better if there is some way to indicate when the “window” is open or closed, because this is the focus of their on-going debate).
As the curtain rises, FRANKLIN is doing some sort of stretching or bending exercise. It doesn’t have to make sense: FRANKLIN is an eccentric who is known for odd and vaguely-scientific-seeming behavior. The actor should feel free to make it up. Apparently it is his normal pre-bedtime ritual. The room is small, so this can add to the comic effect as FRANKLIN has to perform this strange exercise in limited space.
ADAMS (pausing on his way back from visiting whatever passes for a toilet at the inn. Stares at FRANKLIN): What is happening? (Moves toward the window to close it.)
FRANKLIN (continues his moves, so doesn’t notice ADAMS closing the window): I am rendering myself small before slumber. The mind shrinks and diminishes itself for needed nightly knitting and refurbishing of the mental senses – it naturally follows that the body craves the same diminution.
FRANKLIN (focused): Maximal health is as noble and honorable as virtue, John. One should not defraud the body of its need to store and preserve in preparation for various eventualities and realities. What do we lose if we prepare our bodies to store surfeit available energy, thus burning the least quantity of fuel whilst we slumber and are in need of no faculties beyond the ability to draw breath and follow one heartbeat with the next? Shall we not prolong the life of these bodies, and thus the time allotted to be valuable and productive? (Pause.) See? Virtue, my friend.
ADAMS: Would you like to store energy on the left side of the bed, or the right?
ADAMS has forgotten something so leaves the room again, giving FRANKLIN as wide a berth as possible. FRANKLIN finishes his weirdness and begins to stretch his various muscles. He notices the window is closed and goes and opens it just before ADAMS comes back in the room.
FRANKLIN: In truth, frankly – Franklin favors the middle of the bed. Middling is, shall we say, the capital of Bedlam (giggles softly, sits on bed and smooths the covers) when it comes to an old man’s sleep.
ADAMS (has brought a small towel back with him and is rubbing his face with it): Middling? Bedlam? Perhaps age has altered things beyond your sleep, doctor. You can do better, even for a pun. Bedlam is a metaphor quite opposite of apt where sleep is concerned. Why, bedlam would be precisely what one would NOT – (notices the window is open, gathers his nightgown around his throat and moves to close it.) I thought I had pinned this accursed thing.
FRANKLIN: Oh! Don’t shut the window, John Adams! We shall be suffocated. It is so close and foul in this room.
ADAMS: (Patiently, clearly having explained all of this before on the trip.) You well know I am an invalid. I fear the evening air and the illness it brings. I feel I have made myself plain on the matter. (Finishes closing the window). Now. Would you prefer the left or right side? If you do not have a preference, I shall choose a side at random and fall into it, for I am weary from travel as you no doubt are, a weariness made double by the futility of this “mission.”
FRANKLIN: Dear boy, dear boy. Do not say futile! Pessimism primes the soul to expect failure, but the fount of life may just as well – and often does! – spew forth success when pumped. Indeed, one’s attitude oft demarks the chief distinction between success and failure in an enterprise. That we shall likely fail tomorrow may not be denied by reason nor mitigated by hope – yet I should not be surprised should we find our journey back home speeded by some good news we carry in our purses in the form of treaty or writ we can now scarcely envision. Good news lurks near the waters of life, my friend, same as monsters.
ADAMS: As usual, I struggle to match your meaning to your words, although they do at least appear to be appareled in the fashions of reason and sense. And as usual – and just as strangely – they give me comfort. Yet still I beg you to leave the window pinned. My health will not abide it, and I should perish, meaning you shall have to meet that loathsome addle pate all alone tomorrow – or today, unless I miss my guess. What is the time? It cannot be early – excepting it be morning early instead of evening early. Shall we to bed for at least a few winks before the cock crows? I am weary.
FRANKLIN: Yes, we shall to bed, young fellow. But not until you are set straight upon a few matters. Only then shall I reveal which side of the bed I care to occupy, if I must choose. But how do you know that this Admiral Howe is either loathsome or suffers an addled pate? Perhaps he is a pleasant fellow and clearheaded. Inference and assumption may indeed share a hovel, but when they go afoot, assumption capers and acts the fool while inference occupies himself with study and consideration.
ADAMS: Please, Ben: no more lectures for the evening. I beg you.
FRANKLIN: The second bit of education your able but weary brain needs concerns the air in this room. (Lies down on the downstage side of the bed, farthest from the window). Come! Open the window and come to bed, and I will convince you. I believe you are not yet acquainted with my Theory of Colds.
ADAMS: Please, I beg you. Not now. I am spent. I am done. I shall concede the point, and bid you a fond goodnight. (Falls into bed and covers up.)
FRANKLIN: One little thing, John Adams.
FRANKLIN: Well, two, to be precise. One: The window is still closed, and you have not yet heard my Theory of Colds.
ADAMS: Yes, that is two, doctor. And they shall both remain as they are: un-elucidated.
FRANKLIN: How impertinent! Do not scoff at learning, John. It is perhaps the only consistently sacred thing. (Laughs) Second – or third, if you prefer: If you dream, write the details down and give me the perusal of them in the morning. I am keeping a log of –
ADAMS: Yes, yes, yes. For heaven’s sake, yes. If I dream, I shall record it (looks around for anything to write in or with, seeing nothing) – or at least tell you about it. In the morning.
FRANKLIN: In detail? Because generalities will not –
ADAMS: Yes. Oh yes, in such detail. Now. Shall we “knit” and “refurbish”?
FRANKLIN: Certainly. Pleasant slumbers, my good fellow.
ADAMS: Pleasant slumbers, doctor.
ADAMS turns on his side away from FRANKLIN; both lie still for a few moments. Then FRANKLIN lifts and separates his legs under the covers. Then he bends them, together and separately. Then he bends and separates, and rises and settles. And then he repeats the whole process.
ADAMS cranes his neck and watches the last few moves of this bizarre ritual.
ADAMS: Please forgive me if there is some limitation of your physic with which I am not acquainted, for I mean no mockery when I ask WHAT IN HEAVEN’S NAME ARE YOU DOING?
FRANKLIN: Socrates himself is said to have at least implicitly understood the value of the body’s natural inclination to bend and stretch at key moments of stress or necessary rest. Legend has it that in one lecture, he even—
ADAMS: (On his back now, clearly frustrated, arms above the covers, exhausted) Verily. Verily, I no longer understand anything at all, and I cannot say if this newfound imbecility is the result of your ramblings and “observations” and maneuverings of legs, or of the crippling exhaustion I shall surely struggle to communicate should anyone ask me to describe it upon our return to Philadelphia. I somehow feel as if they are related.
FRANKLIN: (Up on one elbow.) Perhaps your ill temper may be explained by the foul air, my friend. If you will but give the word, I shall gladly remedy—
ADAMS: No. Thank you. I have made my mind clear on the matter. Now please, Benjamin, I beg of you as I would a brother: release me to my slumbers. Or I shall be a useless ass in the morning. At what hour commenceth this accursed conference?
FRANKLIN: Hold – the papers are in my valise. (Kicks off covers.)
ADAMS: Pray, stay! Never mind. We shall rise with the cock. I fear—(sees that it is too late; FRANKLIN is up; ADAMS sighs, continues perfunctorily, resigned) –I fear I shall never get thee bedded down again once thou art afoot. (Rubs his eyes furiously.)
FRANKLIN: (Stops in front of his bag, turns, interested.) Why John Adams, it seems I have aroused the Puritan in thee.
ADAMS: Verily. He awakens when I find myself weary. As at present. Perhaps you shall recall the former whiteness of my eyes and now marvel at their current bloody state. I am certain I would, had I a mirror.
FRANKLIN: (Claps, excited.) My dear counsellor, I do believe you have just forged a “bloody” pun. What a momentous occasion! We shall have it bronzed!
ADAMS: These “bloody” eyes plead with thee. I am tired.
FRANKLIN: Fear not, fair fubsy friend. See? Even now I return to our bed.
ADAMS: Oh, pray do not say “our” bed. Were we betrothed, I do not know that I could be kept from doing evil unto myself.
FRANKLIN: (Chuckles.) Never fear. Tragically, bedding is anything but a “matrimonial” affair for me in these latter days, John Adams. (Drops some papers to the floor beside him, holds onto a few, climbs into bed and under the covers.) Pleurisy is just as cruel a disincentive to love as is a droopy prick. (ADAMS flinches slightly at the inappropriateness.) Which puts me in mind of a lass I knew when I worked for my insufferable brother at the Courant –
ADAMS Yes, yes, I know all about it. In fact, your “Silence” would “Do good” at this very moment.
FRANKLIN: John Adams! Your puns are showing again. It isn’t proper to go about mentally unclothed.
ADAMS: What are those papers you dropped to the floor?
FRANKLIN: (Ignoring ADAMS, he shuffles and finds the meeting information.) Here now: Our appointment is “to begin precisely at nine.” Precisely, eh? Am I mistaken, or does that suggest that we need prodding, as oafs — or loafers? Ha! Oafs or loafers. (Singsong.) Loafing oafs and oafs who loaf. (Chuckles.)
ADAMS: I shall never understand you. I respect and admire you, but only because I am brilliant enough to acknowledge an equal brilliance. I know it would be imprudent to alienate or ignore you, so I embrace admiration and respect as the only remaining alternatives.
FRANKLIN: How you warm my heart!
ADAMS: Nine of the clock? Are you certain? I have not known a lobsterback to sleep past the rising of the sun.
FRANKLIN: (Looks through glasses, then over glasses, then through glasses.) Forgive me – eight. Eight in the morning. My spectacles perform exactly one half of their duties faithfully, leaving the other half to take the hindmost. There must be some way to read far away AND cl—
ADAM: (Laughs softly, sleepily.) I am glad I pushed thee to look again. Eight. Not nine. That seems more in character. (Yawns.) My anger has diminished with my vigor, old friend. (Yawns again.) I can bear thee no ill will if I am sleeping. (Drifts.)
FRANKLIN mumbles half-hearted assent, as if also near sleep, and reaches over the edge of the bed, to the papers on the floor he pretended not to hear ADAMS asking about. He looks back at ADAMS, who is now asleep. FRANKLIN grins, finds a patch of light, and pulls the papers closer to his face.
FRANKLIN: Let’s see, where was I? (Reading:) “Governor Morris, bursting with worrisome message after worrisome message before the defeat of Braddock, to force them to make acts for raising money for the defense of the province, without taxing, etc.” (Lifts paper and looks at it, scans. Reaches under pillow and brings out a stub of pencil. Scratches, writes in the margins.) Let’s see, let’s see. “Governor Morris…(scratches out) who had continually worried the assembly with… (trails off as he writes)
ADAMS stirs. FRANKLIN stops scribbling and casts his eyes toward ADAMS, who snores a little and settles. FRANKLIN smiles and turns away from ADAMS, continues editing.
FRANKLIN: “Bursting”? (Laughs, talks to himself.) Bravo, old fool: you are young in one way at least: the quality of your writing. (Laughs a little louder, can’t help himself.)
ADAMS wakes suddenly, confused and disoriented.
ADAMS: (Struggling to open his eyes.) The cock?
FRANKLIN flinches, causing papers to rustle.
FRANKLIN: (Guiltily.) Nay, nay, it is late still. By which I mean early. By which I mean you may slumber for many hours yet. You have only recently entered sleep.
ADAMS: (A bit more awake now, but does not move. Stares at ceiling, deadpan.) Have we not discussed this?
FRANKLIN: (Tries to shove papers under himself.) I declare I do not know what –
ADAMS: Have. We. Not. Discussed. This? The scratchings and rustlings of your scribblings are to me as gongs and banging cymbals. My mother used to say my sleep was (finishes with FRANKLIN) whispy as webs.
FRANKLIN: (finishes with ADAMS) whispy as webs. Yes. And I should like to school your mother on metaphors when next I meet her.
ADAMS: Do not mock her! Nor me! Nor whomever thou art mocking! (Deep breath.) I feel as if slumber hath not completely forsaken me, and if you will agree to what we have discussed, and scratch paper with pen only during the hours normally reserved for human activity…
FRANKLIN: Would I were able to eschew sleep altogether, friend! I have indeed attempted it, to no avail. But do you not see? I write at all times. I am never NOT writing. Only on occasion do I commit what I have written to paper, and in those times it is crucial to strike while the iron is hot.
ADAMS: Wilt thou never stop talking? A deposition on the nature of writing will keep, please.
FRANKLIN: Very well, my friend, very well. (Leans and drops papers and pencils to the floor next to bed. Takes in a breath to start in on something again, but notices ADAMS is struggling to remain awake and decides to have mercy.) And so I surrender. Let us rest.
ADAMS: (Groggy with sleep.) Finally. Perhaps the creator felt this way when he retired from His labor.
FRANKLIN: Goodnight, my friend.
ADAMS: At last. (He is asleep again.)
Moments passes. FRANKLIN also seems to be asleep. Neither move. After an interval, ADAMS sits straight up in bed.
ADAMS: Really. This is simply too much.
ADAMS jumps from the bed and grabs at his clothes upon the (chair, floor whatever).
FRANKLIN rolls to his side.
FRANKLIN: (Feigning innocence, but trying not to laugh.) Whatever is the matter, John Adams? Where are you going?
ADAMS: Do not dissemble, doctor. I spy the smile upon thy face. (Sniffs twice.) Good god! I shall suffocate!
ADAMS rushes to the window and throws it open, sticks his head out and breathes deeply.
FRANKLIN: Finally! You begin to understand.
ADAMS slams the window closed again.
ADAMS: (Whirls on FRANKLIN.) No! No, I do not understand! I would rather choke upon thy arse whispers than give thee the satisfaction of thinking your inane theory bears any merit whatsoever.
FRANKLIN: Inane, say you? Why, my dear Mr. Adams, my vapors are the least of the foulness now inhabiting this closed-up room. The air within this chamber will soon be, and indeed is now worse than farts OR the air outdoors. If you will but come back to—
ADAMS: No! No! No! I shall never climb back into that sepulcher with you again. This is down to your drinking, is it not?
FRANKLIN: My what?
ADAMS: Oh, do not feign innocence, dear doctor. We all know of thy love of drink; lesser known, apparently, is the foul stench it excites in thy bowels in the dead of night. ‘Tis no wonder thou sleepest alone! (Has his pants on, reaches for his shirt.) I shall take my leave and sleep in the livery with the literal asses. If I am to be persecuted like the Chirst, I may as well start at His beginning and imitate Him in full.
FRANKLIN: I believe you are not yet acquainted with my theory of farts. If you will but listen, I shall –
ADAMS: You simply do not understand, do you? Thou simply cannot ken the extreme antipathy I feel for thee at this very moment.
FRANKLIN: (Getting excited, throws covers off and gets out of bed). Look to the savage animal, John Adams. Savage though he may be, yet one rarely hears of an animal stricken with a cancer of the digestive works. This may clearly be attributed to farts. When nature bids a beast relieve himself, he feels not the compunctions of shame nor etiquette, but rather avails himself as a matter of immanent custom. Had the rough animal to abide by the arbitrary societal strictures which stop up the human bowel without regard to happiness and health, he too would be afflicted with arse cancer and the like. In fact, —
ADAMS: Nay! Nay! I will hear no more. (Finishes dressing.) I would rather live among the heathen – the reprobate! – than – (Stops in the act of putting his shoes on. Speaks patiently and calmly at first, but is preparing himself for a rant.) Listen, doctor. (Puts out his hand in a stopping gesture.) Do not talk. Listen.
FRANKLIN starts to speak, but ADAMS rares his shoulders and widens his tired eyes in warning. He struggles to speak, then suddenly slumps, defeated, and sits on the bed. FRANKLIN, surprised, moves over a little to allow him room.
FRANKLIN: Why, what is the matter, my friend? Are you ill? I shall—
ADAMS: Please. Listen. (Deep breath.) Doctor, I am frightened. (Pause.) There. I have confessed all, to my shame. In truth, I do not think I shall be able sleep in any case, irrespective of your foolishnesses and noxious vapors, for every time I close my eyes I see this Admiral Howe atop the gallows, and thee and me ascending the stair.
FRANKLIN: (Quietly.) Ah, my young friend. (Pats him on the knee like an uncle.) I confess I had forgotten what it is to court death at so fresh an age. It has been so long since we first began to consort openly that I have grown bored of him and he of me, and I have begun to wonder if one of us has not jilted the other.
ADAMS: (Silent chuckle at FRANKLIN’s weirdness. Sighs.) So you admit that we are courting death?
FRANKLIN: My boy! From the start of our great enterprise, each of us has sported the noose like a cravat of doom. You will recall that we began our solemn consort with an explicit reminder of this, even before the invocation. We wooed death in those hot rooms with the windows pinned for so long that it is natural that the cold air of open sedition now chills us to the bone, but be not fooled: It has been chilly out here all along, even if it has only recently become our particular duty to air-bathe in frigid climes. Until all men are free in all places, humanity shall be required to rotate in and out of the side of the bed closest the window. Mayhap we shall all catch our deaths of cold ere this cycle ends, but we are duty bound nonetheless.
ADAMS: Somehow your words do not make me feel any better, even as I recognize them as the truest and most sensible ones you have uttered all this long night.
FRANKLIN: Nor were my words forged to accomplish such an end! I would not be your friend were I to tickle your ear with (whispers) “Safety” when all around you is “Destruction!” No, we may very well indeed swing from the gallows betimes, but I do not think it shall happen on the morrow. Men are not called to meetings to be hanged. Meetings and hangings are close enough kin to make this a redundancy. But think for a moment: if we are indeed met by the executioner when we arrive at this conference, would it not be better to meet our deaths in a state of rest and health? And if we open the window as I have suggested, I can guarantee –
ADAMS: (Thoughtful, ignoring FRANKLIN’s attempt to re-visit the window issue.) Death is death, doctor, no? What matter is rest to a condemned man? What benefit is health?
FRANKLIN: Why, John, think of what you say. From the time we are past crawling and suckling we are well acquainted with the inevitability of our impending doom. Indeed, the very schemes and plots we fill our days with are mostly but poultices designed to soothe the ache of this knowledge. Add to this the dizzying reminder that no one knows the day nor the hour when he shall cease drawing air, and one is left with the cold, bald truth that one is always lurking ‘round the door of death, merely awaiting the sound of his name when he is finally summoned past the threshold once and for all and may stop worrying about it.
ADAMS: (FRANKLIN’s words are calming him somehow. Perhaps it is the familiarity of even such weirdness.) And this is supposed to persuade me to die of chill in this room tonight? So that I may cease to fear death and thereby cheat the crown of the pleasure of sending me off? I do not follow your logic.
FRANKLIN: I mean to say that at every second, one is on the cusp of death, and yet one strives for maximum health in every one of those seconds, or at least hopes for it. Were we to cease concern for health and happiness because death is imminent, we should never endeavor to improve our lots. Why, even the Scriptures admonish us to –
ADAMS: All right, doctor, all right. I understand. I always have understood: we must face our fates as men, as the righteous, as one does when one is right despite a great cloud of witnesses proclaiming otherwise. These times are the true test of a man, for anyone may stand firm when the cause is popular and easy. (Nods.) Thank you for the reminder. (They are both quiet for a moment.) You may open the window. But only if we switch sides! You should have the privilege of sleeping closest to the cutting wind that I know will invade this room and end us both. At least you will go first.
FRANKLIN: (Gets up and pats ADAMS on shoulder before walking to the other side and opening the window.) Or it shall merely skate across me as it climbs in search of, ahem, loftier heights. (Chuckles.) But seriously, you have made the right decision.
ADAMS: That is doubtful. I feel if I had made the right decision, I should even now be cozied up to the dog and horses out in the – (FRANKLIN has begun removing his nightgown) Hold! Hold! What art thou doing?
FRANKLIN: If I am going to air bathe, my fine friend, I shall do it properly.
ADAMS: No. Absolutely not. (Climbs into bed where FRANKLIN used to be, sniffs, makes a face, settles.)
FRANKLIN: (Shrugs.) Ah well. (Smiles, excited, climbs in bed.) Now. About my Theory of Colds. You know, John Adams, the human body, by respiration and perspiration, destroys a gallon of air every single minute.
ADAMS: (Eyes closed.) Oh dear Heavenly Father. (But he smiles.)
FRANKLIN: Two such persons, as are now in this chamber, will consume all of that air in but an hour or two. Think of it, John.
ADAMS: (Groggy.) No.
FRANKLIN: Think of it: No one ever caught cold by worshipping in a cold church, or by remaining in any cold air whatsoever. Actually –
ADAMS snores a little. FRANKLIN notices, but keeps going, just a little quieter. He too has begun to get groggy.
FRANKLIN: No no; by breathing over again the matter thrown off in a closed room by the lungs and the skin, we should imbibe the REAL cause of colds. Not from abroad but from within. You see…
They are both asleep. Both snore lightly.
After a few moments of sleep, FRANKLIN suddenly shivers, then gets up, eyes mostly closed and still clearly mostly asleep, closes the window, rubs his arms for warmth, scratches his ass, farts, and climbs back into bed.