TOM – The Phoenix from the Lake – Act 1, Scene 3 – September 2019

by admin on September 17, 2019

Here’s the third scene of my Tom Thomson play – continuing from last week’s post. It takes place in Toronto’s Don Valley in spring, 1917, in Tom’s painting shack where he is trying to persuade Winnie, his northern mistress, to pose nude for him. They are both taken by surprise by the arrival of several of his Group of Seven painter friends.

CROSS FADE TO SCENE 3.

(Loud male voices are heard off and then banging on the door upstage. It bursts open and three men spill into the shack, clutching open bottles of liquor. They are surprised and delighted to have caught TOM and WINNIE in ‘flagrante delicto’ and dance around the armchair. WINNIE clutches dressing gown round her. One of them, FRED VARLEY, is in WW1 soldier’s uniform.)

VARLEY:            (attempting to adopt a military bearing) What’s the meaning of this, Thomson? Don’t you know there’s a war on?

A.Y. JACKSON:         (owlish) Tha’ss right. ‘England expects every man to do his duty.’

LAWREN HARRIS:               And instead what do we find? Debauchery! And with a respectable young woman. Has he been forcing his attentions on you, my dear?

VARLEY:              Damn right he has. I saw him. Don’t deny it, Thomson. You’re a cad.

HARRIS:               Never fear. We shall defend your honour, my dear. Take hold of him, men. Put him on that chair. Needs to be taught a lesson, hulking brute.

JACKSON:              Shame. Bloody backwoodsman.

(JACKSON & VARLEY drag TOM to his feet and set him on kitchen chair and hold him down.)

HARRIS:               I suppose he lured you here on some false pretext, my dear?

WINNIE:              (adopts innocent maiden voice) He told me he wanted to paint my portrait. And then when I got here, he made me pose in the nude. (covers face coyly)

VARLEY:                 I knew it. Up to your old tricks, Thomson. While better men are off bravely defending our country, you skulk about seducing defenceless young women, by pretending you’re an artist.

JACKSON:             Goo’ thing for you we ‘rived in the nick of time, miss.

HARRIS:                 Well, Thomson. Do you admit to this vile behaviour?

TOM:                (playing along)I admit nothing. She is deceiving you. I paint landscapes, not nudes.

VARLEY:          Is this true, madame? Can you prove it?

WINNIE:          (pointing to easel) See for yourself.

JACKSON:        (rushes behind easel with others to look at picture) Nothing but a few charcoal scribbles. This ain’t proof, miss.

WINNIE:         (stands facing them upstage and briefly flashes open her dressing gown) Will this do?(They all do a double take from her to each other.)

HARRIS:           Incontestable proof.

VARLEY:           Guilty as charged on all counts. Debauchery, pornography, refusing to enlist, lack of patriotism, and sabotaging the war effort by painting useless landscape pictures.

JACKSON:         Shou’ be shot at dawn. By offended party.

HARRIS:             What do you say, Thomson?

TOM:                     I need a drink.

JACKSON:            Me too.

VARLEY:                So do I.

HARRIS:              (flourishing his silver hip flask) Drinks all round. (Pours whisky into teacups on table and passes them to everyone.) To Winnie –

VARLEY:               To virtue rewarded –

JACKSON:            To wives and girlfriends –

TOM:                       And mistresses.

HARRIS:                (Sings) ‘Bless ‘em all, bless ‘em all…,’

ALL:                         (join in) ‘The long and the short and the tall.                                                                                                  Bless all the mothers who breed cannon fodder                                                                                                                         And all the comforts we get from their daughters.                                                                                                                  Bless all the wives and the girlfriends galore,                                                                                                                             Bless all the mistresses and all the whores.                                                                                                                              Bless ‘em all, bless ‘em all.                                                                                                                                                              Drink up my lads, bless ‘em all.’

 (They drink and slap TOM on the back. WINNIE has got dressed behind the curtain during the singing and reappears in period long dress. She goes and sits on TOM’s lap and sips his drink.)

WINNIE:             Thank you for trying to save my reputation, gentlemen. Is that what brings you here in the middle of the night?

HARRIS:              Fortuitous coincidence, Winnie. Fred, here, is returning to the Front in France in the morning, so we were giving him a rousing send-off and came to fetch Tom to help us.

JACKSON:           Didn’t mean to upset your artistic endeavours, Tom. I look forward to seeing the result of your new change of subject.

VARLEY:              From landscapes to nudes. That’s quite a change. Why not change to painting the war? I hear the government wants artists to bolster the war effort, Tom.

TOM:                     Is that what you plan to do, Fred? Paint propaganda pictures for the government?

VARLEY:               Not me. Jus’ a reg’lar infantryman fightin’ for the king.

TOM:                     What about you, A.Y.? Have you swallowed all this king and country bullshit Lord Kitchener keeps spouting?

JACKSON:             You have to admit, as an old poster painter yourself, Tom, it’s a powerful piece of work. (Strikes a pose of the famous WW1 recruiting poster,) ‘Your country needs you!

TOM:                        For cannon fodder. No thanks. I’ve got my work cut out for me right here and up in Algonquin Park. I’ll leave the killing fields of France to you. I don’t believe in ritual slaughter.

WINNIE:                Tom’s right. Why should you get yourselves killed for some pompous old men playing God with your lives?

HARRIS:                 Not what I expected to hear from you, Winnie. Most of the women I know are gung-ho on the war. Handing out white feathers to shirkers like Tom.

TOM:                        So you intend to go as well, Lawren? Fancy yourself in an officer’s uniform ordering poor saps like Fred and A.Y. here, to throw away their lives. Are you ready to shoot them if they refuse to obey?

HARRIS:                  Too late now, Tom. I’ve been enrolled in my father’s regiment. First Lieutenant Harris, in the Toronto Artillery Brigade.

VARLEY:                  Gets to ride a bloody horse while I have to slog along on foot with the 3rd Battalion of Light Infantry.

WINNIE:                  But you haven’t enlisted yet, have you, A.Y.?

JACKSON:                I been thinkin’ about it after talkin’ to Fred. He says if they’re gonna win this war they’ll need a lot more men. Just like Kitchener says.

VARLEY:                    We’re bogged down in the trenches, fighting back and forth over the same piece of ground. The bloody Huns mow us down like clay pigeons every time we attack.

WINNIE:                     It’s insane. Throwing away your life. Because some officer like Lawren orders you to obey an incompetent, old general miles away, hiding behind the lines.  Don’t do it, A.Y.

TOM:                           At least think it over, A.Y. Come up north with me on a painting trip and get away from all this war fever here in the city. Clear your head. April in Algonquin Park. A perfect time to paint the spring break-up. We should all go – together. I want to show you some of the stuff I’ve been doing. I think I’m on the verge of a break-through. We can help each other. Forget the senseless war. We’re painters, not soldiers. (He sorts through a stack of small sketch panels and passes them around.)

HARRIS:                      We may be. But somehow, painting landscapes in the middle of a war strikes me as irrelevant. Like living in the past and pretending it isn’t happening.

JACKSON:                  I don’t think art and war mix, either, Tom. I agree with you, it just produces propaganda.

TOM:                             So you have to choose. Fred chose war, I choose art.

VARLEY:                      I’m fighting to defend your freedom to paint. It’s a question of priorities.

WINNIE:                      You’re all a bunch of liars. You pretend to hate the war but you’re all itching to get over there and share the glory. Tom’s the only one of you who sees through all the war hysteria. Stop trying to talk him into joining you. I don’t want him to go; I don’t want any of you to go. By the time this war is over you’ll all be dead and what will you have achieved? A few promising artists who threw it all up. For what? A pointless deadly struggle back and forth over the same strip of ground. Isn’t that what you said, Fred?

VARLEY:                   I don’t expect you to understand, Winnie. Tom knows what I mean.

WINNIE:                       Oh, you mean women shouldn’t have any say in whether there’s a war or not? I haven’t noticed any women generals on either side. Maybe if there was, we wouldn’t have a war in the first place.

HARRIS:                        Spoken like a true Suffragette, Winnie. No wonder we’re all afraid to give women the vote.

WINNIE:                        You lot think it’s all a game and you want to play, too.

VARLEY:                         I want to play my part, that’s why I’m going back. And believe me, it’s no game. You’d soon know if you were there.

HARRIS:                         Watch out, Winnie. Fred will have you joining Florence Nightingale’s brigade so you can bind up his war wounds.

WINNIE:                          No thanks. I’m not getting sucked into your stupid boys’ games.

TOM:                                 Save your breath, Winnie. They’ve all been brainwashed by old Kitchener. You and me will be up north in the wilderness. Far away from all this insanity.

HARRIS:                           We’re all friends, Winnie. Let’s agree to disagree. At least come and see Fred off on the train. Who knows, if you’re right, it might be your last chance to kiss him goodbye.

WINNIE:                          I’ll kiss him goodbye right here. Not with a crowd of drunken jingoists at Union Station.

HARRIS:                           You’ll come, Tom? Have a farewell drink with Fred?

TOM:                                  Let’s all have a drink. It may be our last one together for a long time. (He pours out drinks for them).

VARLEY:                           What about my kiss, Winnie?

WINNIE:                            My gran told me never kiss a fool. But for you, I’ll make an exception. (She gives him a fierce hug and kiss.) Keep your head down, Fred. No heroics.

VARLEY:                             Don’t worry. I’ll be back to claim another kiss. Look after her, Tom.

HARRIS:                              To art..(raises his glass. They all follow suit).

VARLEY:                              To victory.

JACKSON:                           To friends.

WINNIE:                              To votes for women.

TOM:                                     To Fred.

(They all drink a toast and troop out, leaving WINNIE. She watches them leave and stands for a moment with her hand on her belly.)

  CROSSFADE TO SCENE 4:

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