It was the result of reading an early one-act play by Eugene O’Neill that had recently been rediscovered. Bookforum published it in full, as though it were a significant literary event. I’m not O’Neill, but I knew I could write a one-act play as good as this juvenilia. So I did.
WAITING FOR GOD
Nathan, a Jewish merchant
Dathan, another Jewish merchant
Vainglorius, a Roman officer
A Roman soldier
SCENE: The marketplace, in the shadow of the coliseum.
Nathan (excitedly): Dathan, did you hear the news?
Dathan: Tell me, bubeleh.
Nathan: The Romans have a new god.
Dathan: How is this news? The Romans have a pantheon full of gods.
Nathan: Actually he is not only a god, but the son of a god. He's the Messiah.
Dathan (incredulously): Our Messiah?
Nathan: Is there any other?
Dathan: That's ridiculous. No way the Messiah would reveal himself to the goyim and not to us, his Chosen People.
Nathan: But they say he performs miracles, just as was prophesied.
Dathan: What miracles?
Nathan: Walking on water. Casting out demons. The usual.
Dathan: Any magician can do that.
Nathan: He also raises the dead. They even say he died himself, and came back to life.
Dathan (stroking his beard thoughtfully): That is a good trick. I’ve heard about it, but never seen it done myself.
Nathan: What if he really is the Messiah?
Dathan: No way. If he really did perform these miracles, he must be a devil.
Nathan: Are you sure?
Dathan: All the Roman gods are devils. What do they call this new devil of theirs?
Dathan: Not Jesus of Nazareth?
Nathan: You’ve heard of him?
Dathan: I have.
Nathan: They say he’s one of us, a Jew. Is it true?
Dathan (spits): He’s a bum! He brings shame on our people.
Nathan: How? What does he do?
Dathan: He runs around with sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes and other riff raff. (snorts derisively) Some god he is!
Nathan (grinning): Maybe he is a god. He sounds like Dionysus!
Dathan (laughing): These Romans and their gods! But Jesus is neither a god nor the son of a god. I know his father. Joseph is a good man, but no god.
Nathan: What’s so good about him?
Dathan: When he discovered Mary, his betrothed, was with child, he did not have her stoned, as most men would do. He married her anyway.
Nathan (admiringly): What a mensch. That explains why the Romans say this Jesus is the son of a god.
Dathan: Why is that?
Nathan: Caesar’s astrologer predicted that a new king would be born to a virgin.
Dathan (guffaws): Mary a virgin? I said she wasn’t married when she got pregnant. I didn’t say she was a virgin.
Nathan: Bit of a nafkeh, is she?
Dathan: Of course. Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
They both laugh.
Dathan: I heard she was fooling around with some Roman soldier while Joseph was courting her. That soldier is probably Jesus’ father.
A phalanx of Roman soldiers marches by. Nathan nudges Dathan and points at their captain.
Nathan: Speak of the devil. Isn't that Vainglorius?
Dathan: It sure looks like him.
Nathan: Perhaps he is Jesus’ father. They say no virgin is safe when he's around.
Dathan: Boy or girl.
They both laugh.
Vainglorius orders the phalanx to halt, then he approaches Nathan and Dathan
Vainglorius: Did I just hear you two question the divinity of our new god? (He whips them)
Nathan and Dathan fall to their knees, then raise their arms in the fascist salute.
Nathan and Dathan (shouting in unison): Hail, Caesar!
Vainglorius: Don’t be ridiculous. I’m noble, but not that noble.
Nathan (feigning incredulity): Aren't you the great Constantine?
Dathan (also feigning incredulity): You look great to me, noble sir.
Vainglorius (simpering): Don’t try to flatter me.
Nathan (earnestly): We would never do that, noble sir.
Dathan (equally earnestly): We have too much respect for you to try that.
Vainglorius (mollified): Good, because I hate flattery. You may rise.
Dathan: Thank you, noble sir.
Nathan and Dathan stand up.
Nathan: You may not be Constantine, but you are indeed great, noble sir.
Dathan: Truly a god among men.
Vainglorius: Enough of that. What were you two saying just now? It sounded blasphemous.
Dathan: We're not blasphemers, noble sir.
Nathan: We sacrifice to Jupiter and all his children.
Dathan: Venus is my favorite. I got a venereal disease in her honor.
Vainglorius: Forget Jove and his bastards. They’re yesterday’s gods. Do you worship the new bastard, Jesus of Nazareth?
Nathan: Then it’s true, noble sir? You Romans are Jesuits now?
Vainglorius whips Nathan
Vainglorius: Not Jesuits, you dolt. The Nazarene’s followers are called Christians.
Nathan (cringing): Forgive me, noble sir. I didn’t know.
Vainglorius (graciously): That’s all right. I wouldn’t have known what they were called, either, if it hadn’t been in the loyalty oath we took when Caesar declared Christianity the new state religion.
Nathan: But noble sir, how can you Romans stop believing in your old gods and start believing in this new one so quickly?
Vainglorius (laughs): Do you imagine we Romans really believe in any of these gods?
Nathan: Don’t you?
Vainglorius: Certainly not. We leave gods to fools like you.
Dathan: Noble sir, if I may dare to ask - what do you believe in?
Vainglorius: Ourselves, of course. We Romans are gods among men. You said it yourself.
Nathan (aghast): You don’t believe in any gods but yourselves?
Dathan (glaring at Nathan): Shut up and kneel in the presence of greatness.
They kneel. Vainglorius watches them grovel at his feet, fingering his whip thoughtfully
Vainglorius:You may rise.
Dathan: Thank you, noble sir.
Nathan and Dathan stand up.
Vainglorius: We Romans have no need of religion. We leave that to our women, our slaves and fools like you.
Nathan (aghast): We Jews never allow our women to discuss religion. Their small brains would burst.
Vainglorius: What about your brains?
Dathan: Jewish men are great scholars, noble sir. We spend all our time studying our sacred books.
Vainlorius: No wonder we conquered you so easily.
Nathan: It doesn’t take a scholar to see you Romans are gods among men, noble sir.
Vainglorius (disgusted): Stop cringing and show a little pride. Remember you are subjects of Rome. That's an honor for a foreigner.
Dathan (still cringing): Thank you, noble sir, for deigning to conquer us. We are honored indeed.
Vainglorius: You should be. But it does us Romans no honor to conquer cowards. You were already slaves to your priests before you became ours.
Dathan: We apologize for disappointing you, noble sir.
Nathan: We will try to be more like you Romans, noble sir.
Vainglorius (scoffing): Impossible. But even if you could, it’s too late.
Dathan: Too late? What do you mean, noble sir?
Vainglorius: You Jews killed our Lord, so Caesar has ordered us to kill all the Jews in Rome. I’m arresting you and sending you to the coliseum, where you will be crucified, just as our Lord was.
Nathan and Dathan gasp.
Vanglorius turns and waves to one of his soldiers, who approaches and salutes.
Vainglorius: Take these two blasphemers to the coliseum. They will entertain the mob by dying this afternoon.
Soldier: Yes, noble sir.
Nathan and Dathan raise their arms to heaven and cry, in unison: Hallelujah!
Vainglorius (nonplused): This pleases you?
Nathan: Indeed it does, noble sir. We will be martyred for our faith.
Dathan: Suffering here on earth will guarantee that we sit at the right hand of God in heaven. From there we will look down and watch you unbelievers burn in hell for all eternity.
Vainglorius (shrugs): I don’t care what you do in the next world, so long as you don’t give us any trouble in this one. The Nazarene gave us enough trouble for an eternity.
Nathan: We’ll give you no trouble at all, noble sir. We render onto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.
Vainglorius: That sounds like something I heard the Nazarene say. Are you sure you aren’t Christians? Jesus was a Jew before we crucified him.
Dathan: A bad Jew. I spit on him. (he spits).
Vainglorius: Why do you call him a bad Jew?
Dathan: He threw the moneychangers out of the temple.
Vainglorius: That does sound bad. Fortunately no one remembers what the Nazarene did when he was still alive, and a Jew. He’s our god now, so we decide what he does. (Vainglorius turns to the soldier) What are you waiting for? Take them to the coliseum.
Soldier: First allow me to congratulate you, noble sir, on capturing today’s first Jews.
Vainglorius whips the soldier
Soldier (cringing): What have I done to offend you, noble sir?
Vainglorius: You’re trying to flatter me. Do it again and I'll have you crucified in the coliseum alongside these two blasphemers.
Soldier: I was not trying to flatter you, noble sir.
Vainglorius: Are you sure?
Soldier: I swear it by the sacred blood of Jesus.
Vainglorius: In that case, I believe you.
As the soldier leads Nathan and Dathan away, they look at each other and smile
Nathan (chuckling): Boy, are these goyim in for a nasty surprise when the real Messiah comes.
Dathan (also chuckling): You better believe it, bubeleh.