I live in Dublin, Ireland. Sometimes. Most times I live in my head, quite unaware of my surroundings – if you know what I mean… If you succeed in tracking Sean Walsh, please let me know, ok? I've been searching for him for years…
What better way of reliving the first Good Friday than by Drama? And yet I recoiled from the conventional Passion plays I had come across from time to time over the years. I wanted something else. Different. Down to earth. And new, hopefully original. A fresh look at an old story… Good Friday revisited? Indeed…
I set myself the task of telling it from the prisoners’ point of view… and as the Colonizer might have viewed it… No Jesus, no disciples, no saints or angels, no pharisees… (The central character never seen or heard, constantly referred to.)
A play that could be performed on a stage, in a church or In the Round; in modern dress or as costume drama… The parallels with today’s world would be all the more obvious were the piece performed in modern dress; to mount it as a costume drama might well lessen the relevance – or so I reckon.
And so At the Praetorium came to be born… But not without a heart-aching measure of trial and error, false starts and new beginnings, re-writes, edits, research, consultation with Scripture scholars – birth pangs of one kind or another…
The Praetorium? The fortress of the Roman Conqueror in Jerusalem, centre and seat of foreign power. As such, hated and despised by the local population…
At. Above. Beneath… Behind the scenes. Off stage. Conjecture. Dramatic license. Irony. A storyline that could never be dismissed as Incredible… ‘never far from the authenticity of the official records. What might have happened, could well have been the case…
The piece is based, for the most part, on the Passion narrative according to Matthew. The Evangelist does not name Pilate’s wife so I resisted giving her a fictitious one; I simply refer to her as the Woman. (Her name was unimportant; her dream – in terms of the ancient world – was of significant importance.)
Re the thieves who were crucified with Jesus:
Tradition has named the repentant, “Dismas” and the unrepentant, “Gestas” but this is not scriptural. In Mark’s Gospel (14:32) and in Matthew’s Gospel (27:44) both are reported as berating Jesus. John’s Gospel (19:18) mentions their presence without stating that they berated Jesus.
Only in Luke’s Gospel, 23:39-43, is there reference to a repentant thief; but neither are actually named.
Setting the Scene:
The eve of a great feast – and a great Event… Jerusalem, the Holy City of a Chosen People, lies sleeping…The full moon of the Passover, high in a cloudless sky, brings into cold and sharp relief the Temple… casts light and shadow on the narrow streets of the inner city….
Through these streets the elders of the Sanhedrin are hurrying to the house of Caiaphas, the High Priest… While in the upper room of a private house the prophet from Nazareth sits down to break bread with his disciples…
In the upper city the cry of the watch rings out from the turrets of the Praetorium, the Roman fortress, symbol and sign of empire…
Beneath the Praetorium, in the dungeons, three men lie in chains, awaiting execution:
Dismas, a thief, perhaps the greatest thief in all history – who stole Paradise even as he suffered the death penalty.
Gestas, a man who may die as he has lived.
And Jesus bar Abbas, held for murder and sedition, of whom so little is known, so much surmised in literature and drama… even to the present day.
BARABBAS, a prisoner
GESTAS, a third…
LUCIUS, a Roman officer.
ZARA, her servant.
JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA.
SOLDIERS. . . 2/3.
So… An eight-hander in one act. Hour-long, give or take… 6 males, 2 females.
To give you a taste… sample extracts:
BIRDSONG… PILATE STANDS… STRETCHES… YAWNS… ENTER LUCIUS.
Good morning, Sir.
Ah, Lucius… Up and about so early?
I slept but fitfully, Sir.
And I. The journey from the coast should have tired me. And yet I was restless through all the long hours of darkness. As was her ladyship.
Sir, I should tell you –
But now the sun is up, the air balmly, while the city still slumbers.
Sir, I –
See, Lucius. Below and about us. Jerusalem. Have you ever viewed a more peaceful vista?
Well, no, Sir. Not, not since we departed Italy.
Yet so much unrest down there – discontent, anger, railing against Rome – in the squares, the narrow streets, the squalid dwelling places…
An unrest that is fermenting, Sir, even as we speak.
The Jews are on the move, Sir. Crowds of them, converging here – on the Praetorium.
My intelligence is they are in contentious mood. ‘Roused by their religious leaders.
Oh, ye gods! And I in high hope of a peaceful sojourn.
It would seem unlikely, Sir.
Such a troublesome Race! What is it this time?
The Rabbis – priests of the Temple – have a prisoner.
One of their own. Jesus. ‘Hails from the North. From Galilee.
They would have you try him – they are intent on obtaining the death penalty.
Why? What has the wretch done to warrant crucifixion?
SUDDENLY GESTAS CRIES OUT – THE CRY OF A MAN IN THE GRIP OF A TERRIBLE FEAR. CLANKING OF CHAINS AND PANTING AS BARABBAS STRUGGLES ACROSS THE CELL FLOOR –
I don’t want to die… not like that… not –
BARABBAS STRIKES GESTAS ACROSS THE FACE.
GESTAS IS REDUCED TO WHIMPERING SUBMISSION.
BAR: Not here, not when we’re their prisoners… I could not bear the thought of a man of mine whimpering like a stray cur…
GESTAS: Barabbas, you were always kind to me, Bar-Barabbas… (BEGINNING TO BREAK AGAIN) T-t-they’re going to nail us up, Bara –
BAR: Shut! Shut your mouth! If they hear you they will mock us all the more. Do you want to die like a man – or a slave?
GESTAS: D-d-don’t want to –
BAR: Gestas! You make another outcry like that and – I swear it, Gestas, I swear it! – I’ll strangle you with this chain!
GESTAS: I won’t, I p-p-promise you I –
DISMAS: Leave him be… If – if he is afraid he is not the only one.
DISMAS: Yes, Barabbas. Yes! I can think of nothing else – and I am so afraid I – I can’t contain my… myself.
PILATE : What to make of it? I am astounded at this Jesus. He speaks not a word in his own defence. Why, he will not even look at me. ‘Stands there, centre- circle, downcast…
LUCIUS: The Jews bear him much malice.
PILATE: They are bent on blood. But why? Why the hatred?
LUCIUS: And they are playing the Roman card.
PILATE: Huh… I am loath to give in to them. And yet the more I try the more unruly they become.
LUCIUS: Eh, if I may remind you, Sir –
LUCIUS: It is the custom at the Feast for the Governor to release to the people a prisoner of their choice.
PILATE: Yes. Yes, of course –
LUCIUS: There are many felons in the dungeons. I have in mind one in particular –
PILATE: Who? Tell me –
LUCIUS: Jesus. Son of Abbas.
PILATE: Barabbas. He still lives? I found him guilty of sedition and murder. A vile creature.
LUCIUS: He is to be executed this very day. With two others.
PILATE: Come! To the point!
LUCIUS: Well, if you were to offer to release one or the other – Barabbas or the Galilean – ?
PILATE: Ah! I see what you – !
LUCIUS: We will foil the Rabbis, slip their snare –
PILATE: But of course! No one could be so malevolent as to prefer a murderer to a mute!.. I thank you, Lucius… Come, let us return to the Seat of Judgement…
LIGHT ROOM. THE WOMAN PACING… ENTER ZARA.
WOMAN: Well? Did you..?
ZARA: Indeed, my lady. I went at once to the Place of Judgement as you bade me, gave your message to one of the guards who went directly to the Centurion –
WOMAN: And he conveyed as much to my husband?
ZARA: Be assured of it. Word for word.
WOMAN: Oh-hh. Then we can only wait and… And still the tumult grows apace.
ZARA: It frightens me, my lady. The crowds are in a frenzy, at fever pitch.
WOMAN: Oh, how will it go for the Jew – and for my husband?
ZARA: I have seen many prisoners come and go – witnessed their trials at a distance – but this, this…
ZARA: Why, he stands alone before the Procurator, this Jesus of Nazareth. Not one of his own Race lifting a finger – much less a voice – in his defence. Whatever friends he had – family, following – have all deserted him…
GESTAS: I – I don’t know to p-p-pray…
BAR: Well, isn’t that just too bloody bad?..
GESTAS: I mean, what do you…? Is there s-s-someone…? Will… y’know, will anyone hear… it…? (PAUSE) I’ve…I’ve often thought about t-t-things… y’know, things… I think, like, a lot about… y’know, d-d-different things… What, what do you think, Barabbas?.. I mean, do you think there’s… there’s a god?..
BAR: If there is I don’t know him. I don’t know him at all.
GESTAS: Wh-what do you think, Dismas?
DISMAS: Haven’t thought about it much… He’s made a mess of it if he is – if there is a god…
BAR: (LAUGHING SARDONICALLY) Here we are, prisoners, in chains, spending our last day in a hole in the ground, and we wonder if there’s a good god?! It’s as simple as that – good god!..
DISMAS: Then what happens when the time comes… when we go up and it’s – all over?
BAR: Nothing. Just that. When you’re dead, you’re dead.
DISMAS: I don’t know. But it can’t be as you say. Just can’t. There must be some –
BAR: ‘Ever met anyone who came back?
DISMAS: No. No, I haven’t –
BAR: Dismas. Look, I’ll tell you: the day someone comes back from the dead I’ll begin to think about it – not till then.
PILATE: Release Barabbas. He walks – if he can walk – free.
LUCIUS: Sir. And the Galilean?
PILATE: Have him scourged. Let your militia have their way with him a while.
LUCIUS: As you wish. And then?..
PILATE: Then… if the Jews do not relent… If, if they continue to bay for blood…
PILATE : Crucify him.
DISMAS: You know I had this feeling all along – that you would outwit the Romans in the end.
BAR: Dismas, I –
DISMAS: Goodbye, Barabbas… Remember me.
EXIT DISMAS, FOLLOWED BY THE SOLDIERS.
BAR: I – I lived with them, fought with them… I had thought to die with them, never thought otherwise…
LUCIUS: Come, I’ll see you to the main gates…
BAR: Dismas was my very best friend.
LUCIUS: I’ve got to hurry.
BAR: Yes. Yes, of course. You’ve got to hurry… or you’ll be late… late for the stripping and the nailing…
LUCIUS: The sunlight will be strong when we get to the – you understand?
BAR: Yes… For weeks I rotted in this Hell hole. And now I’m – it’s like a dream.
LUCIUS: No dream, Barabbas, no dream… Take care, man. Go a civil way. Kill your dreams of revolt and rebellion. Kill then now, once for all. Don’t end again in prison.
BAR: No… Never again. You may be sure of that…. I don’t want to see the inside of a prison… ever again….
LUCIUS: Defying Rome is a fool’s game….
BAR: Fool’s… game…
LUCIUS: It won’t always win a fool’s pardon.
BAR: Fool’s… pardon…
LUCIUS: Where will you go?
BAR: Go?.. Why, to Golgotha… I go to – Golgotha… I will stay to the end… as near to Dismas and Gestas as I can –
LUCIUS: You’ll be near the crosses. I’ll see to it.
BAR: Until it gets – darker and darker… Besides, I…
BAR: I want to look on the man who dies in my place…
PILATE AND HIS WIFE…
PILATE: You – you heard?
WOMAN: How could I not?
PILATE: I, I did what was best…
WOMAN: Oh? For whom?
PILATE: You do not understand –
I understand an innocent man goes to his death with my husband’s seal of office on the warrant!
Very well, I… I conceded. But do you not see? Had I resisted, there could well have been a riot, damage to property and people, my militia harrassed, intimidated – even loss of life.
Loss of life?..
This way, order is maintained. The crowds will disperse by and by. All will be as it was…
PILATE: We will be able to sleep in peace in our beds – in this forgotten outpost, this benighted Province…
In – peace?
Oh, how can I?!.. These are complicated issues – politics of the highest order, diplomacy of a most subtle degree! You will see, see in time that I –
Is this really my husband who speaks to me thus?..
I did what was in the best interests of Caesar!..
But of course. Caesar first. First and foremost.
What! A choice between the Emperor of Rome and the King of the Jews? Don’t be absurd! The decision was obvious – no contention!..
Oh, Pontius, Pontius! I fear for you…
Your judgement against the Jew may well be your undoing…
THE WOMAN ALONE. ZARA ENTERS, APPROACHES HER.
My Lady?.. So forlorn?..
Ah, Zara… I was a long way away… What now?
They have started out for Calvary, my lady.
So weak is the Jew, he fell under the weight of the crossbeam.
They are making him carry it?
No more. The Centurion singled out a foreigner in the crowd, forced him to the task.
He is darker than the Jews.
Indeed, my lady. A visitor, perhaps, passing through Jerusalem –
And now he goes to Calvary, shouldering a crossbeam –
Is it not strange, Zara, that the only ones who helped – tried to help – the Galilean are strangers to these shores? My husband – at least at first. The Centurion. I, in my own way. You, after a fashion. And now a black man out of Africa…
I fail to follow, my lady?
Each with one thing in common: we are, all of us, non believers – pagans…
PILATE RELUCTANTLY GRANTS JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA AN AUDIENCE.
My, my name is Jo –
I know who you are. Come, be brief.
I, I ask permission to take possession of the Nazarene’s body.
He is dead? You are certain?
I was there, by the cross, when he yielded up his spirit.
Hmmm… You were one of his followers?
A silent one, alas.
Huh… And what have you in mind should I grant your request?
Why, to give him a decent burial.
Out beyond Golgotha I have had a new grave fashioned from the very rock –
In, in anticipation of my own burial.
There I shall lay Jesus in a clean winding sheet – with your permission.
And you will seal this tomb?
There is, sir, a great rock hard by the entrance. I shall have it rolled into place once the body is –
Then do it – with my blessing.
I thank you, Governor.
And that will be the end of it…
PILATE MAKES TO TURN AWAY…
JOSEPH: Perhaps… Perhaps not.
PILATE STOPS, PAUSES, TURNS BACK…
LUCIUS: There is a delegation in the forecourt.
LUCIUS: Jews… They request a hearing.
PILATE: Request denied.
PILATE: I have had enough of Jews and Jewry for one day.
LUCIUS: As you wish, Sir.
LUCIUS MAKES TO EXIT.
PILATE: Did they… signal their intent?
LUCIUS; They – they would have you mount a guard.
LUCIUS: At the tomb… where the felon’s body is buried.
PILATE STANDS UP, NOW AGAIN ALERT.
PILATE: Do I hear you aright?
LUCIUS: They are concerned, Sir, that –
PILATE: They want me to mount a guard? Send Roman soldiers to guard a tomb? A tomb?!
LUCIUS: From what I could gather, yes.
PILATE: Are they mad? Why, I would be the laughing stock of the Empire!
LUCIUS: It seems, sir, while he still lived, this fellow promised his followers –
LUCIUS: That he would come back again. From the dead. With – within three days…
PILATE: Oh-hh! This again! Three days, three days! First the elder from Arimathea, now this!..
HE TURNS AWAY, PONDERS, TURNS BACK FOR –
Go tell them: the Governor of Judaea will not send men under his command to guard a grave! He will not be privy to this folly…
PILATE MAKES TO TURN AWAY… TURNS BACK
AS A THOUGHT SUDDENLY STRIKES HIM.
They have their own guard, have they not? Mercenaries? In their pay?
Why, yes, I –
PILATE: Then let them see to it!
Just a taste… to show – hopefully – what I’m at, where I’m coming from…
More info and insights on my website: www.sean-walsh.me
Paperback edition available on Amazon.com Amazon.co.uk
In Kindle format also on Amazon.
Priests, clergy, religious, parish/drama groups etc., may very well welcome
a new approach to Holy Week…