(The palace of the Este family at Ferrara in 1573. Princess Leonora sits in her dressing room, reading a manuscript, while her maid Irina brushes her long dark hair.)
Irina: So dark, and yet shining so!
Leonora: Yes...Irina, dear Irina, can you make excuses for me this evening? I shall not dine with the court.
Irina: What? Nonsense, sweet child. You must. You are expected, you would be missed!
Leonora: I shall not go. I am indisposed.
Irina: But you know that Count Bustafo will be there—in all his masculine finery—and he’ll want to banter with the girl he means to wed.
Leonora (tempestuously): Let him banter with his own reflection! I want to be alone—and to read poetry in my chamber.
Irina: Ah. The verse of young Tasso, perhaps?
Leonora: Oh, I’m not so sure about young Mr. Tasso. All that “soldiers glad by heaps to harness run” palaver. It’s all very well but sometimes I wish he’d change the tune a little. Crusade, crusade—that’s all you ever hear with him.
Irina: I think—
Leonora: Don’t think! Do my hair!
(An almost-silence descends; only the sound of brush against hair can be heard. That, and the cries of geese being throttled outside in the yard.)
Irina: You said the other day that young Marcovaldo has a unique lyric voice.
(Silence; brush; geese.)
Irina: Perhaps you prefer the strophes of young Malpiglio?
Leonora: Irina, you ask too many questions! Go and tell my mother my head is aching and I won’t be down.
(Exit Irina. Leonora communes with herself in the mirror. Lights dim on this part of the stage. Lights come up on scene at other side of stage: the gentlemen’s smoking room downstairs. The poet Malpiglio is pacing anxiously. Enter Albano, a palace messenger.)
Malpiglio: Well? Did you show the Lady Leonora my sonnet about her hair?
Albano: I did, sir.
Malpiglio: And her response was what?
Albano: She smiled. In a way.
Malpiglio: In a way? What way? Albano, thou seest this dirk? This dirk will taste thy blood if thou dost trifle with Malpiglio. Now say, what manner of smile, bespeaking what coloration of mind, did grace the lips of the lady?
Albano: ‘Twas not so much a smile, perchance, as –
Albano: A smirk.
Malpiglio: A smirk? Dost see this dirk? I’ll have no smirk, but you shall feel my dirk!
Albano: You’re not allowed to smite palace messengers, so put your dirk away and hearken to what I have to bespeak. She is somewhat taken by another, one becalled Marcovaldo. I heard her say he has a unique lyric voice.
Malpiglio: But does he have strophes?
Albano: She didn’t say; she said she preferred’st him to Tasso. Malpiglio: Preferred’st him to Tasso? But what of Malpiglio? Gadzooks! (Enter Count Bustafo, bustling.)
Bustafo: Did someone say Gadzooks? ‘Twas my nickname in my rugby days. Oh, I could tell you stories! Those were days of chianti and whacking!
Albano: Your gracious Countness, dinner will be served within the minute, the tapers are lit, the pinot noir is being poured.
Bustafo: Ah, good Albano. Here’s a peck of ducats for your stout yeomanship. And what of the sparkling Leonora? Can I be sure of sitting next her? Accouched in propinquity, so to speak?
Malpiglio: Excuse me. I don’t feel well. (Exit Malpiglio. Retching sounds are heard.)
(Enter Irina nervously.)
Irina: Albano, my Lady is indisposed. She cannot dine with the court.
Irina: Her head aches, your grace.
Bustafo: Does it! From reading all that trash of poesy, I doubt not!
Albano: I shall inform the Duchess. (Exit Albano.)
Bustafo: This is ditchwater on my crumpet, I must say. I had so creamingly anticipated an evening of extreme neighborliness with the Princess.
(Enter Malpiglio drinking from a goblet.)
Malpiglio: What what? What? Leonora not to dine?
Irina: Alas no, sir. My Lady is indisposed.
Malpiglio: She will get over it when she smelleth the roast goose, forsooth.
(Enter Tasso, disguised as a clown/juggler.)
Tasso (to himself): As I thought—Malpiglio the plagiarist is here to nuzzle my blessed pussycat. But she will refrain, methinks. And yon Bustafo —he will find that being a Count counteth for nothing. I must find my Leonora. To her balcony!
(Exit Tasso, disguised as a clown/juggler. He passes Albano who enters.)
Albano: As the rabble would say, “Come and get it.”
Bustafo: Albano, tell me, who was that clown?
Albano: A mere juggler, your Countability, who hath entertained the Lady Leonora at odd moments.
Bustafo: Odd indeed.
(Lights dim on the gentlemen as they go to dine. Lights up in Leonora’s chamber. She is anxiously peering out between the lush curtains at her window.)
Leonora: Betimes when fierce desires we juggle,
Sweet hearts get wounded in the struggle.
(Enter her cousin, Lady Guiline, tall and striking, with a sharp nose.)
Guiline: Good evening, cousin. That was a foul verse.
Even Malpiglio could hardly do worse.
Leonora: Guiline! Fair cousin, what dost thou here? Dinner is served below, and baby artichokes are involved.
Guiline: The same question could redound on you.
Leonora: Ah! I have no appetite.
Guiline: Mmmm. Not for food, perhaps.
(A thumping sound comes from the balcony.)
Guiline: I sense that someone craves some literary criticism.
(Leonora runs to her cousin and clasps her imploringly.)
Leonora: Oh, cousin, dear Guiline,
You shan’t betray me, you shan’t be mean!
You had your thrills once, you had your fun,
Though now, alas, you’re forty-one.
(Leonora runs out on the balcony, where she encounters Philatelo.)
Leonora: Who, pray tell, are you?
Philatelo: Philatelo, miss. From Philatelo’s Balcony Maintenance. We had a call about this balcony.
Leonora: What do you mean?
Philatelo: Apparently, miss, it’s been unsure of itself. It’s been doubting its ability to be a balcony to the toffs. Sometimes these balconies suffer from a sense of insecurity, and we at Philatelo’s Balcony Maintenance pride ourselves on being ready to come at any hour of day or night to shore them up, as it were.
Leonora: But I haven’t noticed anything wrong.
Philatelo: You wouldn’t necessarily notice it yourself, miss, until the crisis came and you found yourself suddenly down in the garden.
Leonora: But I don’t think—
(Suddenly the balcony collapses. Leonora and Philatelo are cast down into the garden, along with quite a lot of balcony rubble.)
(Guiline looks down from the doorway that led onto the balcony.)
Guiline: Such falls must occur when lovers go nuts;
Or else when someone hacksaws the struts.
(Enter Tasso, eagerly, in his clown/juggler suit.)
Tasso: Guiline! Where is thy fair cousin, she who is so much younger and smoother of skin than thee?
Guiline: She ran out on the balcony, in her silkiest gown—
As if to meet a lover—or perhaps a clown.
Tasso: Leonora, I cometh!
(Tasso dashes past Guiline and plummets down into the garden.)
Guiline: A chivalrous scribbler, he had a lot of gall; But this was perhaps not a fortunate fall.
(Enter Malpiglio, holding a roast goose wing.)
Guiline: Where didst thou get that goose wing, which looketh so tasty?
I trust my interest seems not too hasty.
Malpiglio: You look’st quite tasty yourself.
Guiline: Ah Malpiglio, you have won me with those words; an easy
conquest, I realize; but it has been so long . . .
Malpiglio: Indeed, we are neither of us the stuff of romantic dreams. Yet
your hair is quite nice, and I shall write a sonnet about it.
Guiline: Which I shall accept, without the illusion that you are a great poet. Sheer vitality and sheer presence count for something.
Malpiglio: Do they ever!
(Malpiglio throws his gnawed goose wing out the balcony doorway, and embraces Guiline. They tumble together onto Leonora’s bed. Lights dim while they make snuffly noises.)
(Spotlight on Marcovaldo, alone downstairs.)
Marcovaldo: I seem to have missed the dinner, and Albano tells me the Lady Leonora has been taken to the hospital. I am left with nothing to do, as if my life had no point—like a drama with no center of value.
(CURTAIN descends thunderously, as it is made of concrete.)