A Thousand and One Names
Outline for a story
This play is set in the revolutionary aftermath of the events of “1001 Nights”. Its title refers to the mad king’s victims, but also to part of the Judge’s sentence.
The frame story is the ex-king’s trial for mass rape and murder; the setting is in the Merchant’s Guild-Hall; presiding was Sympathy the Learned; prosecuting was the rebellious and triumphant Prince (rightful heir to the throne but disinherited for his morganatic marriage to the niece of one of the king’s victims); defending was the beloved Queen. These are irregular proceedings, as befits a revolution. The story frames the testimonies of the witnesses.
The play starts with a burly slave, bare to the waist, holding high a sword and roaring, “THE KING MUST DIE!” The deposed king is dragged out; the beloved Queen pleads with the mob for his life; the merchants watch the proceedings with approval; the Prince cynically notes that the matter is out of his hands, and besides there must be justice. Very well, the Queen says, let us have a trial! Lights out; then lights on, and we see the slave sitting before Sympathy the Learned, saying “And that is how we decided to have this trial.” Call the next witness!
There are many witnesses, one for each sector of a society overturning itself. There’s testimony from nobles, imams, merchants, peasants and slaves. Mothers and fathers, grieving and enraged, testify. Each one tells a tale, and thus indirectly the course of the revolution; the social, economic and technological changes that made the trial possible at all. The rise of the merchants, the decline of the nobility, the imams’ enthusiasms and anxieties, the grinding despair and mad hopes of peasant and slave; all crystallized around this one king’s specific crime.
One of the merchants complains that the king killed one of his slave girls. One of the slaves notes that normally no-one would care about the life of a slave, let alone a slave girl, let alone a thousand and one slave girls; but it’s different this time, isn’t it, Judge?
The difference? Another merchant lost an older sister, captured by pirates, sold as a harem slave, family found her too late. The merchant swore to destroy slavery (the king being beyond reach) by inventing the self-powered loom. Sympathy the Learned says, go back to your workshop, you subversive!
One of the harshest testimonies is from the sister of a victim. She stammers, then halts; after fifteen seconds of pin-drop silence, Sympathy the Learned says, “Let it be recorded that the witness is too devastated to utter a word.”
The verdict is foregone; guilty as charged, of mass rape and murder. But the sentencing process is contentious. The male slaves wanted the ex-king dead, torn to pieces, starting with ripping off his manhood; the female slaves wanted to jab him to death with dull needles instead. But Sympathy the Learned decreed against this, for reasons of state. The slaves and peasants almost rebel, right there in the courtroom, so Sympathy the Learned hastens to add that the ex-king must suffer for his crimes, and suffer grievously; and for this the slaves are willing to settle.
The Prince proposes that the ex-king be imprisoned in a tiny room, in squalor, poverty, hunger and daily hard labor; but the peasants scoff that this is no worse than the life that they themselves live. The Judge agrees to the Prince’s sentence, but adds that once a month, on the night of the full moon, the deposed and disgraced ex-king shall be read the one thousand and one names of his victims. The ex-king pleads for a lesser sentence, such as the dull needles; the judge agrees that the sentence is harsher than the needles, but nonetheless decrees against him, for reasons of state.
Also, the Judge adds, life is awareness, and you should be more aware.
The Queen volunteers to accompany him to prison; request denied. Conjugal visits granted. Then the Queen volunteers to be the monthly name-reader. Request granted.
Judge Sympathy the Learned notes, as the trial wraps up, that though the king did not die, in a sense he did. For though the man formerly called king shall survive in the flesh, yet nonetheless the kingship itself has died here. Young Prince, you think that you are victorious today. You are mistaken. You shall soon ascend the throne that you have seized from your father; but you shall learn that it is not your father’s throne. You are beholden to men your father would never have bothered to please. Matters are indeed out of your hands, O Prince! Now merchants, clerics, peasants and slaves rule! You are king in name only.
A peasant asks, you mean… this is now a republic?
If you can keep it, says the Judge. Court dismissed!
Judge, jury, witnesses, and Prince file out; as they do so, the Queen sits opposite the ex-king, and starts reading the names. Fade out.