[Pre-dawn in Arles. A café pavement, under an awning. GAUGUIN sits at a table, drinking a coffee. Lamps fading. The PROPRIETOR, sweeping, pauses, points.]
Now dawn will set those cypresses on fire.
If you stay here, you’ll see the miracle.
Our city’s not a city but a fair-sized town;
it’s famous for a dent in its Roman wall
that bears, if you look very hard, the imprint
of Christ’s knee. I know it’s a long way
from Jerusalem, but I believe it.
I believe it’s capable of breeding saints
in spite of its brothels. There’re five.
Brothels, not saints.
Look, the fog is sneaking out of the city streets
like a thief, leaving our avenue bare
and stripped of everything but the sun. Coffee?
[GAUGUIN shakes his head no, then covers his cup with one palm.]
I’ve managed this place for centuries.
I know it like my hand. Arles is nice.
Your friend the Dutchman lives in the yellow house,
but you don’t want to wake him. I understand.
Three, wait, let me see, three corners up.
[LOTTE enters with an umbrella, stands behind a garbage bin. Begins to undress, half hidden. GAUGUIN watches.]
The sky’s bladder is as full as mine.
It’s going to rain.
[She stoops behind the bin.]
Did you just get off the train?
[Lifts eyebrow, nods.]
Boy, you’re really talkative, aren’t you?
What do you plan to do
in this shithole of a town?
[Removes pipe, gestures with it.]
Paint? There’s nothing to paint here.
I’m from here. There’s nothing.
Just in case you ask. I’m a …
Well, you can judge for yourself.
My name’s Lotte.
Good morning, Lotte.
But are you doing what I think you are?
Having a municipal pee. Yes.
would you prefer to use the facility
of that yellow house across the street?
[Crouching behind the garbage bin.]
Hold on. I’ll soon be finished. Good.
How about you? Would you care to share
the facility behind this box with me?
Or over in those bushes there? Fifty francs.
[She rises, straightens her dress.]
Some other time. Everything is yellow here, or gold.
The yellow sunrise in the cornfields.
A prostitute’s pee, and that gangrenous
[Crosses the street, shouts.]
Vincent! He’s here! The wild bull
from the pampas of Peru! Gauguin is here!
I’ll see you around. Bonjour, Monsieur Gauguin.
[Turns, goes up the street, steps carefully over something on the sidewalk, exits.]
Come in! Come in! The door is open, Paul.
I’m making breakfast. The sausages are burning.
[GAUGUIN heads towards the yellow house with his luggage.]
I don’t want breakfast. I want to sleep.
For six fucking months if possible.
[He enters the yellow house.]
[VINCENT and GAUGUIN in the kitchen, a cash box between them.]
Now, in this little box we put our capital, agreed?
Agreed. And I prefer that you keep it.
Okay. This is the arrangement with your brother:
Theo supports me at the rate of
two thousand francs a month, for which I send him
every canvas that I like and finish,
which he then sells to Goupil’s at a cut.
The same with me.
Hold on. In exchange,
he’s billed for all of my expenses.
Food, drinks, paints, women.
Agreed. We’re doing that.
What we are not doing is not accepting this:
that I shall be living in Arles forever,
that this agreement, as pleasant and as hospitable as it is, is not for good.
No, we will not see. You understand?
Yes! Now, you asked me about this painting.
I’ll tell you how it happened.
I first beheld them, the family of Millet,
with their lantern-red, crooked Dutch faces,
ravaging their potatoes. One of them was Lotte,
delicate devourer of their only crop. I sat
away from them so I could see them better,
particularly Lotte. Her long, rabid fingers
moved as delicately as a queen’s. The others
looked as if they had been hewn
from the mud of the Borinage.
They chewed with the voracity of machines.
I watched without the compassion of the evangelist
I was supposed to be; they were subjects,
and mentally I was drawing them.
My heart was riven by Lotte’s bulging eyes,
by her false-flashing smile to me.
Reverend van Gogh like the lantern’s wick,
raging with blasphemous lust.
[An explosive laugh.]
So they couldn’t see what the minister
was hiding in his holy trousers?
Erect with the beatitude “Blessed are the poor”?
There’s an eroticism to poverty.
How often have I admonished little Gauguin,
the scoundrel in my trousers, to behave!
But, Vincent, you preached and you believed, though?
[In his hallucination.]
God is consistent, Pastor. Every night
He gives us the same shit to eat.
Please sit down. I beg you. Sit down, girl.
So that, at least, your turmoil can settle.
Look through the windows at these thin poplars,
so skeletal in the snow. Turn, look.
Did they listen? Did you believe your sermon?
And look at the stars guttering like candles
above them. The poplars do not break;
the constellations keep their design
through the most blinding blizzard.
We are insignificant, a mouse in a coal mine,
scratching. Poplar to candle, mouse.
I didn’t understand what I was saying,
but I was passionate and Lotte was radiant.
That’s what belief is—doubt made consistent.
It was a word from Dante. “The Borinage.”
Like the Malebolge. And, Paul, it was Inferno.
An absolute Inferno. Menu, boiled potatoes.
Lotte loosened her bodice strings a little
to let me feast on a white flash of flesh.
A prelude to the whorehouse we’re going to.
O white thighs in their black mesh! Vive Lautrec!
[Offenbach music. Cancan as the lights fade and change.]
[Outside. A small hill overlooking the town of Arles. A starry night with a full moon over shining roofs. VINCENT and GAUGUIN descend the narrow road. GAUGUIN stops after a few steps.]
Stop. Monsieur van Gogh. Will you join me
in a tribute to your beloved little city Arles?
Pause and deliver!
[GAUGUIN turns his back, unbuttons, begins to pee.]
I shall join you in our golden tribute,
[He also turns, unbuttons.]
Ach, du lieber Augustin, alles ist weg, weg.
That is German. Not French. Who the fuck
All is lost, lost, Augustin, but take it easy.
All is not, not lost.
The only thing that is lost
is a cascade of golden urine
from the second-greatest pisser in the world.
Who’s first? Augustin?
Your ancestors, the Romans, would have been
furious with you. Was it for this they built
their aqueduct? For your pathetic little pump?
I have ambition stronger than any aqueduct.
Look up, Monsieur Gauguin. I see those meteors
you humble pissers call the stars, like wheels
of perpetual motion, the primum mobile,
cartwheeling across the crouching roofs of Arles.
Someone has caught the candles of the sky
[Hugs GAUGUIN around the neck.]
to guide us home, my vagabond Breton.
Not home, not yet. It’s too early, Reverend.
I cannot tell you how happy I am
to have you here with me, how blest I am;
for the smell of the pines in the night, the rustle
in the comforting cypress, the tormented olives
who understand our suffering like our Lord’s.
Your Lord, not mine.
He’s ours, Gauguin.
He takes care of us. His corn-haired angels
stand guard over our yellow house. You’ll see.
I have a lot of active passersby
to keep the canvases busy, but even the trees
are hectic in the wind; there’s a lot of wind.
It sends the canvases flying off the easel.
Between the wind and the rooks, I tell you,
I look like a scarecrow, but that’s not enough.
So shoot the fucking birds then! Patow! Pow!
[Mimes firing a shotgun.]
Great! We’ll cook the rooks, cook the rooks! Okay.
[They enter the café.]
God, you’re a talker, Vincent!
The government, we should talk about that.
See it! The best artists we respect, unite
in an aesthetic republic, one with light.
And women, too, of course.
Away from the pernicious, vampiric galleries,
the shouts of prices in the market,
under the benign rule of our government.
In a new landscape, one without churches,
brick barracks, near a blue ocean
and white reefs, I know just where.
For a new school of painting, an academy
built in the open, and the world’s centre
will shift from Paris to the tropics.
From Montmartre to Martinique.
Cousin, we share one dream.
We’ll sign it with red paint for blood.
To a new art. A different life! Salud!
I’ll drink it in turpentine, the toast. Santé!
[Drinks from the turpentine container.]
[Interior. The café. LOTTE singing to an accordion. VINCENT and GAUGUIN enter.]
Sad as the smoke of trains
from the small country station,
as the bright streets of Paris after it rains,
as my heart’s resignation
that you have left me for good,
like the smoke that leaves from a hazy wood
in autumn. I should be sadder, I should
put you out of my mind, but we grow resigned
to arrivals and departures,
so, yes, I am resigned.
[VINCENT and GAUGUIN applaud.]
[In the yellow house. LOTTE is looking at a Martinique painting.]
This is Martinique. I lived there once.
Yes? What is Martinique like?
What is Martinique like?
Have you read Baudelaire? Charles Baudelaire? Non.
Well, it is like the happier verses of Baudelaire come true.
I can close my eyes now and see its blue horizons
humming with promise, all day
the volcano of Saint-Pierre smoking its pipe
like a contented peasant. I can see
the white thread of its waterfalls. I hear
the raucous racket of its parrots heading home
in the green dusk, awkraaaaak.
And the women there went naked?
Oh, no, they covered themselves, their breasts,
like pious Catholics. Like you.
Unless I pose for you, perhaps.
Except I cannot promise to pay you.
I can wait to be paid. Shall I start?
[Begins to undress.]
On credit? Let’s wait a little while. We’ll see.
Yes, all right. Go ahead, show me.
Forget it. Another time perhaps.
[LOTTE turns, bares her breasts.]
What do you think?
Seriously. Another time.
They are beautiful.
Until age breaks them down.
All beauties become hags in the end.
Here—until that day.
[GAUGUIN gives her money from his pockets.]
You are most gracious, sir. A chevalier.
I am part of the Peruvian nobility
fallen on reprehensible times.
I recognize in you a lady of quality.
Merci. Tell me some more.
Are there many wild beasts there?
Oh, yes! I’ve never shot any, though.
What do they look like?
Exactly like me. Two legs, two hands, a cock,
everything. They eat everything.
And they cannot be trusted. Homo lupus.
Man is a wolf. No; monkeys, snakes, some deer.
I love music and the theatre.
Then it is not for you, dear.
[VINCENT enters, looks in, says nothing. Exits.]
Who is that?
My landlord, Vincent.
I know. He comes to the café a lot.
The girls are all afraid of him.
Vincent? Nooooh. He’s a dove, Vincent. Harmless.
But a very, very powerful painter.
[VINCENT emerges, looks in, nods, then exits again.]
He obviously wants me to go. I’m off.
Bring him with you to the café, to hear me.
We know you sing.
Like a frog. But they pay me.
[Leaving, LOTTE encounters VINCENT at the door. He stares at her. She shudders, then leaves quickly.]
[The studio. VINCENT and GAUGUIN at separate easels, side by side, but both painting landscape with the cathedral.]
Forget the metaphysics, Van Gogh. Paint!
You are painting so that a wall,
a gate, could take a day, a week, a month
to get it right in the sunlight, or in shadow.
In that we’re only artisans, not seers or prophets,
or metaphysicians or astronomers, but workmen
without visionary pretensions, like stonemasons.
We pave with paint—that’s it!
That’s not only it.
At least not for me.
And that’s the problem.
There’s nothing beyond our work. Just death.
[GAUGUIN groans loudly, throws down his rag.]
Why are you groaning? Paul! You’re groaning.
The church, as usual, overlooking all.
Like a death’s head, staring at me with empty eyes.
In Arles, in any autumn, just pick
an arbitrary September, it doesn’t matter,
not as far as that cathedral is concerned.
We’re all sinners, down to the guiltiest fly
washing its hands at the font; like me
or a painter cleaning his brushes.
One day I shall find it, the hedonist’s paradise.
It was almost there in emerald Martinique
and its sapphire sea, except for its women,
whose breasts were covered; maybe the Marquesas,
if the missionaries haven’t corrupted it
So move your easel.
I dream of a culture without any religion.
We’d be its saints: Saint Vincent and Saint Paul
in the new heterodoxy—if that’s a word.
Then leave it out then.
Leave what out?
Out of the painting as out of your life—the church.
I can’t do that. It would ruin the composition.
Or there’d be no composition.
As in art, so in life.
For you, Corporal, not for me.
[Shouts towards the church.]
You have to learn something. Here, in Arles,
days scud by over the roofs and lanes,
racing without an anchor. As for me,
my war is with the weather. In autumn, in Arles
the slates darken in the drizzle, the trees
thresh and toss, then the rain comes. I go out anyway,
my easel rifled on one shoulder anyway.
I have made my peace with the treacherous Midi.
You lied like a travel agent. Like a postcard.
You made everything so glorious.
God! What a miserable day.
We’ll both stay home and paint the furniture.
Before you came, when I still lived alone,
I went down to Sainte-Marie to paint some boats.
I was so happy I thought I was insane.
That you would come out and paint with me at last,
not physical madness, but something closer
to the contorted ecstasy of the olives.
I felt the way you talk about Martinique:
the sea was tropical, cerulean shot with emerald,
and flecked with little mutinous white crests.
I stood there, Paul, rooted and racked with joy,
with gratitude at what life offers us
in the short time we are given. It was bliss.
Bliss that ran down my face into my beard.
If I had died there, it would have been from joy,
the joy that you were coming to Provence,
to Arles, and to the yellow house to work with me.
Do you ever feel bliss when you’re painting?
Sure, nothing gives me a fiercer erection
than a prone landscape or hills and gorges.
When I see a wet furrow hedged with bush
and sparkling with dew, I can’t contain myself.
O the fucking landscape, oh, oh, oh!
Corporal, a hill is a hill, a bush is a bush.
[GAUGUIN looks out of the window.]
I know. I know Arles is not at its best now.
It’s cold and dour and rainy in early winter,
the fields lost in fog, but come spring,
when lilacs foam from the hedges and spiky willows
hum their harp song in the wind,
you can’t beat Arles in blossoming Provence;
the wheel ruts run into heaven and skylarks tumble
in the cerulean, not the slate-coloured, sky.
You’ll see all that, we’ll paint it together,
you’ll forget the tropics, forget Martinique.
You know why you say that?
Because you come from a country
that’s flat as this tabletop, boring as a sermon,
with a few desperate windmills to break things up.
So, naturally, when you came to Provence,
you were like a bum who discovers champagne,
but if you had ever seen gold-dripping palms
with their fronds muttering prayers to the azure blue
and the white crests of plunging breakers? Ah! Ah!
Compared to these pale flares of colour you call autumn …
I’m joking, Vincent. It is all very beautiful,
and I am deeply grateful to your brother.
Is that your favourite season then? Spring?
I love them all for different reasons. You?
I prefer countries that are seasonless,
with one light, all year, and without fog.
I think the future of art is in the tropics,
and no church, or not the one you worship.
I don’t worship.
You’re still a missionary.
With every stroke you do. It’s a good thing.
I envy you your faith. No, I don’t.
Look, the sun is making back with the earth,
little by little, stroke by cautious stroke,
like a lover’s quarrel, but that square
of sunlight moving across the studio floor
is like a sail. You see, everything reminds me
of where I hope to be, eventually. Ah!
The sun in its full glory. Let’s go out!
[The room brightens.]
That’s the Peruvian, the pagan in you. Yes?
The barbarian, the hedonist! C’est ça. Let’s go.
[He dances alone, then with VINCENT.]
[LOTTE stands in the doorway. She sees him dance.]
This is the pure ecstasy of recognition!
You are the peasant beauty of my painting,
the same slate-coloured eyes, the orange skin.
That the Martinicans call shabine.
No, she is irrevocably Dutch.
I know my people, Gauguin.
What are you?
You can’t see?
He means: Where’re you from?
It doesn’t matter.
Why are you here? In Arles?
Because of the Zouaves. The battalion.
You mean the soldiers?
The soldiers, yes, sir.
Most of my life is horizontal, sir.
They are my principal means of support.
Lotte, Lotte, just look at me. Turn round.
Don’t you remember how in the Borinage
the miners sang their iron hymns at evening,
trudging home from work; the star-nosed mole
tunneled through the dirt and then the sky
was moving with miners’ headlamps?
That was my province, yes;
you were the best part of it, Lotte.
You don’t remember it? I painted you.
Not Provençal; slate-coloured countryside
and plodding windmills; you lit it up.
Say something to your old pastor in Dutch.
Do it. Speak Dutch to a homesick pilgrim.
What is all this? Sir, I can’t speak Dutch.
Have you forgotten your own native tongue from living here?
It’s happening to me. Remember it.
All right. Voden für de wasser und der ciel.
What is that?
It sounds like Dutch, no?
Und vest der longen.
I see. You think I’m crazy?
Don’t touch me, please! You’re frightening.
Who are you to say such things as
“Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am”?
Don’t touch me because I am Caesar’s.
You’re just a common whore.
[Bites her ear. LOTTE screams, clutches her ear.]
Isn’t that a sign of passion? Isn’t it?
Hold on. I’ll pour some oil on it. Wait, Vincent!
I’m sorry. Forgive me. I am so very, very sorry.
[GAUGUIN dabs at LOTTE’s ear with turpentine on a rag.]
Stop! You’re putting paint in my hair!
It’s he who should be asking for pardon!
Is it bleeding? Where’s the mirror? Is it bleeding?
You’re a fucking lunatic!
I know, I know.
You are both crazy and you both
have money for me. My fucking ear is bleeding!
You can’t buy an ear just like that!
So you have to pay me something!
Pay her something, Vincent.
How much? I don’t know how much.
I don’t know how much. I never lost an ear before.
Ten francs for a fucking ear!
How much, then? Paul, how much?
I don’t know how much.
Ten francs and a painting.
It’s stopped bleeding.
It still fucking hurts.
[Offers her a small painting of a drawbridge. LOTTE examines it.]
You see, if I had an ear, I could pull it so.
[Pulls at the injured ear.]
As if I were thinking. But I can’t pull it.
It hurts when I try to pull it. Also
if you look hard, you’ll see that the horse is crooked.
Give me something with big flowers on it. That one!
My sunflowers? Are you crazy? Not my sunflowers.
Give her back her ear and keep the sunflowers.
If I wasn’t a whore, I’d call the police.
Give me the crooked horse and the fucking money.
Like an auction. Sold! Unwrapped. One crooked horse.
[Gives the painting to LOTTE.]
[A pile of lathes in a corner. VINCENT and GAUGUIN, measuring and hammering. Framing jute; sizing the canvases.]
So what now? We’re abandoning canvas?
It’s so coarse, jute. Heavy.
That’s why I shipped so much down.
Jute is cheap; besides, it forces you
into another kind of brushstroke, heavier, thicker,
more impasto, blotting out that nervous
obsession with detail and dimensional shadow
you get with linen canvas, which costs a fortune.
It’s wonderful to have you here, Paul.
We’ll build a factory for the imagination.
The centre will shift from Paris to Arles.
[GAUGUIN is cleaning up after VINCENT.]
Look at this mess. Close your tubes.
Do you think being a genius means
you have to be untidy? To live in a pigsty?
No, Madame van Gogh. You’re like a wife.
I don’t swing that way. And I am also not your wife.
Well, all right. We’ll just continue living in sin.
Sin! What is sin? What do you mean by sin?
You know, your brains have been beaten to a pulp
by Bible-thumping. Your thought is still
in bondage to the Borinage, among coal miners
and potato gobblers. You don’t belong in Arles.
You have a northern soul, my friend.
Whores are meaningless. I mean real love.
You’re a Protestant—you have a dutiful passion,
but you’re incapable of sexual ecstasy.
I’m warning you: Don’t let your solitude
corrupt our friendship. Or else
I’ll be on the next screaming train to Paris.
You’re not the first painter I’ve worked with!
My noble savage! My Peruvian!
I painted next to Pissarro and Cézanne.
Men! Neither of them made
those little queasy overtures of anything
more than professional friendship.
Did they support you? Like Theo?
I pay my way, Vincent. Don’t insult me.
I’m going out. Are you coming?
[VINCENT puts on his dark blue overcoat. GAUGUIN is smoking his pipe.]
Ho! You look like a Confederate general.
Well, we have our own little civil war here.
But you mean a Union general.
Blue was for the Union; Confederates wore grey.
As you may have noticed, my coat is blue.
You’re such a bloody scholar, you know!
I know. I can’t help it. I’m just being accurate.
You’d be a better painter if you were less accurate.
You lack imagination, Van Gogh. You’re too accurate.
I see. Unlike you.
Did you hear me say that?
[Pulling out canvases, showing them.]
Accurate! You call these accurate?
Like Monsieur Meissonier. Accurate buttons.
Red grass. Green sky. The Gauguin style.
Great imagination but totally inaccurate.
I pay my way, Vincent. Don’t insult me.
No, you don’t pay your way. My brother does.
I signed a contract with Theo. The one I keep
folded in my pocket day and night.
That I’d paint x number of canvases
for his gallery in Paris for the rent.
Besides, those men were greater company.
Pissarro and his cloudy beard. Cézanne.
Great friends, not whiners and complainers. Not Dutch …
Why did you ask me here?
Solitude? What solitude?
[A dry sob.]
Vincent, I love you. You know that.
[Comes to VINCENT and puts an arm around his shoulder. Embraces him.]
Don’t be. Tell me again.
Describe it to me again now. Vincent’s dream.
Laval, who was with you in Martinique …
[Heavy knocking. GAUGUIN goes downstairs to open the front door.]
Yes! Coming! This is like a railway station.
[He opens the door. The PROPRIETOR brushes past GAUGUIN to enter the studio, sees LOTTE, nods to her. She nods in return. The PROPRIETOR looks at all the paintings on display. GAUGUIN enters.]
This is like a museum. Goodness me.
You did all of this?
Yes. What’s the trouble, Monsieur?
The gun, the gun.
I sold the pistol. I mean, he bought the revolver.
He bought— You sold three guns. Who?
No, one gun. Your friend with the red beard,
The crazy Dutchman, yes, he made me.
He said he needed a gun to shoot hares.
Wait, wait! To shoot who…? Who’s Harris?
Hares, hares …
[Mimes his fist with two fingers for rabbit’s ears, leaping near LOTTE, who backs away.]
He says they molest him
out in the fields when he’s painting, like today.
Nonsense. Vincent wouldn’t kill anything.
Unless he’s crazy about rabbit stew.
You know how sometimes he’ll sit in the café
silent as a gravestone, all his nerves simmering
like boiling coffee, his whole body clenched
and staring; this morning at breakfast, he sat
staring at his usual table, so I came up to him
and asked him what he wanted and he pointed
to the hunting pistol I had mounted on the wall,
then he took out a fistful of francs, then
he gripped my hand and dragged me to the counter
and kept pointing to the pistol. His eyes
were as wild as dragonflies, so I took it down,
opened the case as he commanded, then
gave him bullets that I fetched from the drawer,
and he stormed from the café to shoot some hares.
I want the pistol back. I shouldn’t have sold it.
Please, I could be in trouble with the police.
I have to report the transaction. It’s the law.
The law? I’m going. Goodbye, Monsieur Gauguin.
[Picks up her hat and shawl. GAUGUIN blocks her way, takes her hat and shawl.]
Don’t go yet. Sorry.
I wish I could help. Don’t go to Paris. Stay here.
[From the stair.]
I could go out in the fields and find him.
Yes! Thrash the corn and startle the rooks
and shoot them one by one, except he has the gun.
Charge him too much for one absinthe and …
[GAUGUIN grabs the PROPRIETOR by the lapels with his left hand, and with his right hand miming a pistol, shoots him in the head. LOTTE shrieks.]
Your friend is crazy! Asylum material! Ask her!
Don’t ask me anything; even if I knew,
I have the inviolable secrecy of a prostitute.
[Crosses her heart as she moves towards the door, stops.]
I have the money for the pistol back. Here.
[Shows a fistful of francs.]
I can hold it for him. No?
What are you doing here?
What’s she doing here?
What am I doing here? I’m here on business.
Yeah, I know what kind of business.
You’re a nasty man.
You hear me say anything?
I said something. Tell me.
He may want to keep the gun. It’s his.
His eyes. When his eyes grip you so,
it’s like two hands holding you. You have to obey
when he says, “I want to buy it.” What could I do?
You could have not sold it.
You see you?
I’ll get the gun back.
[VINCENT stands there, still carrying his easel, holding his new canvas of a cornfield. They all watch him. He enters, removes his hat, puts the canvas down, then reaches into the pocket of his blue greatcoat. He is standing in front of the PROPRIETOR.]
Don’t shoot, don’t shoot!
[LOTTE is cowering against a wall.]
Don’t shoot, Monsieur.
[VINCENT extracts a clay pipe from his pocket.]
The wind. I would like to paint the wind;
when it draws a hectic shadow over the cornfields
it tunnels, churning all the olive groves silver, and
bending the pliant poplars, or it fans the stars
like candles and the constellations writhe and go out.
Yes. That, yes. Definitely that. Definitely.
Where’s the pistol?
The one you bought.
[Silence. VINCENT stuffs and lights his pipe. Grins.]
The pistol is hidden. It remains my secret.
[He sits in his armchair. Silence. Then he laughs.]
Copyright © 2014 by Derek Walcott