The Tragedy of Orpheus: A Comedy

The steward of the castle is not happy in this madrigal dinner. For years, he has been trying to get the Chamberlain’s Men, headed by that rising playwright Shakespeare, to perform for the King. Instead, the King was persuaded by the Jester to hire another troupe: Johnnie Lumley and his Learned Players. The steward warns the Jester that the last time someone recommended a substandard play for the King, he and his actors ended up in the dungeon. Jester, now unsure, looks in on rehearsals and finds, to his horror, that the actors are members of his aunt’s sewing circle—and they can’t act at all. The Jester has a long night ahead of him—and, perhaps, a longer time in prison.

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4 Males, 6 Females, 2-5 Extras M/F

JESTER (M) the professional funny man of the court

STEWARDESS (F) Culture snob, trying to elevate the tastes of the court

JOHNNIE LUMLEY (F) director and playwright—and the Jester’s aunt

JESSICA FEMINIQUE (F) thinks she’s “all that”; takes herself way too seriously

NELLIE (F) a shy actress who keeps forgetting lines

AGNES (F) a frustrated actress who is tired of being second fiddle to Jessica

BERT (M) an actor: very large and very manly in a very awkward way

KING (M) wants to be entertained, not much patience for “artsy” performances

PRINCESS PENELOPE (F) likes a good romance

TOWN CRIER (M) professional announcement-maker of the court

EXTRAS (M/F) members of the court


At the start of the show, the Stewardess is very annoyed:

STEWARDESS:  I have tried for thirteen years to get Shakespeare to perform at our court.  And finally, finally when he was available, the King has hired some troupe that I’ve never heard of.  I mean, really:  Johnnie Lumley’s Learned Players?

JESTER:  I’ve heard of them.  They are quite good.

STEWARDESS:  Oh, really?  They hail from Shropshire, of all places.  What could they possibly know of fine acting?

JESTER:  (Getting defensive.) And why not?

STEWARDESS:  Shropshire?

JESTER:  I was born and raised in Shropshire!

STEWARDESS:  My point exactly.

JESTER:  What?  I deliver a stunning performance every evening to the Court.

STEWARDESS:  “Stunning.”  My point exactly.

JESTER:  And I’ll tell you something else!  Johnnie Lumley’s Learned Players are very popular in Cheshire and Heref.  They left the audience gasping and teary-eyed!

STEWARDESS:  So does the plague.  (Pause. Moment of recognition.)  Wait a minute. It was you who convinced the King to let them perform!

JESTER:  Me?  Why that’s . . . I mean . . .  Oh, all right.  It was me.  And I think you will find that Johnnie Lumley is even better than that Shakespeare.  I guess that’s why Shakespeare’s the Great Bard.  Get it?  Barred from the court?  (Aside, snorts and slaps his knee.) 

STEWARDESS:  You can make fun all you like, Jester, but I highly doubt that this Johnnie Lumley will live up to the King’s expectations.  And if the king is not satisfied, you know what will happen.

JESTER:  Happen?  (Looks worried.)  What will happen?

STEWARDESS:  About 16 years ago a troupe performed before the king, and they were so bad that the king had them thrown in the dungeon.  He said that’s where all instruments of torture belonged.

JESTER:  Oh.  So . . . are they still in the dungeon?

STEWARDESS:  I assume so.  And the poor fellow who arranged the performance . . .

JESTER:  Who was that?

STEWARDESS:  Why, he was the Jester before you. He was thrown into the dungeon with them.  He has been forced to watch the same horrible play every day for sixteen years.  You can still hear the Jester’s screams drifting up from the dungeon on a quiet night. (Calling.)  Give me the thumbscrews.


STEWARDESS:  But why dwell on the past?  (Slaps JESTER on the back.)  You seem to have quite a bit of confidence in this Johnnie Lumley.

JESTER:  I’ve . . . never actually seen a performance.  But they come very highly-recommended.

STEWARDESS:  (Looks skeptical.) Indeed.  By whom?

JESTER:  Some nobleman. In fact . . . he’s sitting here tonight.  Right over there.  (Points to a man in the audience. Choose someone who has a beard or mustache and is sitting next to a female guest.) 

STEWARDESS:  (Looks out toward the man.)  Lord Slapstick?  (Turns to JESTER.) 

JESTER:  That man with the mustache, yes.

STEWARDESS:  That’s no mustache, that’s his eyebrows. (Beat.)  He has very low-brow humor. And next to him is Lady Maudlin.  She loves plays that make her cry.  An interesting audience we have here tonight. (As she exits.) Well, I am quite anxious to see the performance . . . and the king’s reaction.  (TOWN CRIER enters, passing STEWARDESS as she exits.)

TOWN CRIER: Well, Jester. It looks as if the Stewardess is looking forward to your aunt’s performance after all.

JESTER:  (Thinking aloud.)  Aunt Johnnie had better put on the show of her life, or it’s my neck.  And (Points.) you, Lord Slapstick and Lady Maudlin, had better lead the rest of this court.  I want lots of laughing and lots of crying . . . and don’t get the two mixed up! (Still ignoring TOWN CRIER, exits.)

Later, the players arrive:

JOHNNIE:  Nephew!  (Looks and sees a food stain on his cheek.  She pulls out a handkerchief, spits on it, and starts to wipe his cheek.  JESTER struggles against her attentions.)  What would your mother say?  In the King’s court with a dirty face!  Let me see behind your ears. 

JESTER:  Stop that, Auntie.  I’m a grown man!

JOHNNIE:  With a mushroom patch behind his ears.  But still, it’s good to see you, my lad!  (Steps back to have a look at him.)  And look at you!  The Court Jester!  Yes, just look at (Looks at his outfit.) you.  You know, I talked to the shoemaker on your behalf, and he said he would take you back as his apprentice, despite that little incident with the elves.

JESTER:  I told you never to bring that up again.  And besides, I am doing quite well as the Jester.

(Enter LEARNED PLAYERS, looking disinterested.)

JESTER:  It seems that you are doing well, too, Auntie.  Look at you!  Yes, look at (Looks around at rag-tag bunch of actors.) you.  In charge of your own troupe of (Beat.) actors? I’m glad that you could fit us into your tight schedule.

JOHNNIE:  Well, to be honest, nephew, we did have to cancel a previous engagement in North Piddle.

JESTER:  North Piddle?

JOHNNIE:  A most excellent venue.  We were performing at an agribusiness construction symposium.

JESTER:  (Beat.)  A barn-raising?

JOHNNIE:  And that was just the beginning.  We had a gig at a porcus pyronis later that evening.

JESTER:  A pig roast?  (Aside.)  I hate it when the Stewardess is right.

JOHNNIE:  Anyway, let me introduce you to the rest of the troupe.  This is Nellie.

JESTER:  Hey, isn’t she –

JOHNNIE:  Yes, you probably remember her as the stone in our acclaimed play King Arthur.

NELLIE:  The sword tickled.

JOHNNIE:  The Grimsby Gazette called her performance “solid” and “bold.”

NELLIE:  Actually, they said, “boulder.”

JOHNNIE:  Quite.  And this is Agnes.

JESTER:  I know her.  She’s –

JOHNNIE:  Of course you know her.  She is famous for her role in “Balaam and the Angel.”

JESTER:  Oh.  You were Balaam?

AGNES:  No, that would be a lead role.  (Glances at JESSICA.)  I had more of a supporting role.

JESTER: The angel?

JESSICA:  (Smiling.)  Agnes was the ass.

AGNES:  I prefer donkey.

JOHNNIE:  But it was a speaking role.  When Agnes rolled her eyes and brayed in dismay –

AGNES:  I prefer cried.

JOHNNIE:  Well, I couldn’t help sobbing myself.  The Haltwhistle Herald called her performance “moving” and “asinine.”

AGNES:  I prefer “donkey-like.”

JESTER:  Yes, but –

JOHNNIE:  And this is Jessica.

JESSICA:  Jessica Feminique.

JESTER:  Feminique?  Aren’t you Jessica Fogbottom?

JESSICA:  Feminique is my stage name, dear boy.  But please, no autographs just now.

JESTER:  But I wasn’t –

JESSICA:  Ever since my performance in Joan of Arc, I’ve been hounded by autograph seekers.

JESTER:  But –

JESSICA:  The last fan asked me to sign his belly.  I guess he didn’t count on a dipped quill pen.


JESSICA:  It became a permanent tattoo.

JOHNNIE:  Jessica is our star attraction.

AGNES:  (Mutters.)  More like “sideshow attraction.”

JESSICA: I was the lead in Joan of Arc, Helen of Troy, and Waiting for Godot, Part II.

JESTER:  Waiting for Godot, Part II?

JOHNNIE:  Godot finally shows up.  We do avant-garde.

JESTER:  Avant-garde?

JOHNNIE:  It’s French.

JESTER:  I see.

JOHNNIE:  And this is Bert.  (Looks but does not see BERT, who is fiddling with props.)  Bert?

BERT:  (Stands up in back.)  Yo.

JOHNNIE:  Bert is new to the troupe.

JESTER:  Jessica, Agnes, and Nellie.  (Nervously.)  Auntie, except for Bert, this is your . . . sewing circle.

BERT:  Uh, I joined the sewing circle last month.  (JESTER stares at him.)  I find a little embroidery helps me relax after a hard day of hewing wood.

JESTER:  (Looks confused.)  Riiight.  (Back to JOHNNIE.)  Look, Auntie, I went out on a limb for you to get this job.  A high, thin, rotten limb.

JOHNNIE:  You have no worries, nephew.  Why, the Biggleswade Bugle called our performance of The Unicorn Cannibals

JESTER:  Unicorn Cannibals?  You had unicorns on stage eating people?  (STEWARDESS enters and listens in.)

JOHNNIE:  No, other unicorns, of course.  Very avant-garde.

JESTER:  Well, you can’t perform any of that avant-garde stuff for the King.  He’s got very traditional tastes.

JOHNNIE:  You mean something more along the lines of Carnivorous Camels?

JESTER:  No!  Nothing that involves quadrupeds eating flesh! (Beat.) Do something light.  Do a romantic comedy.  Yes, Princess Penelope will like that!