The Punctuality Machine, Or, A Steampunk Libretto

Issue #173

SETTING: The Arcadian hamlet of Fork-in-the-Heigh, many miles from London, on the eve of historic havoc.

DRAMATIS PERSONAE

WHITLOCK CARTWRIGHT (a Young Inventor-cum-Geometry-Tutor, Chronically Late)

LADY CADENCE (a Young Beauty, Apparently Devoted to Geometry)

JACQUENETTE (Personal Automaton to Lady Cadence. French. Mobility Somewhat Restricted by the Hose Providing her Steam Power.)

VILLAGER 1 (a Villager)

CHORUS of Villagers (Other Villagers)

VRIL (a Charismatic Potentate of Extremely Alien Origin)

CHORUS of Vrillians (Vril’s Devoted Vassals)

First produced at the Opera Comique, London, on 1 April 1882.

ACT 1

(WHITLOCK CARTWRIGHT, wearing his least-patched TWEED, rushes onto the empty stage at L. before the closed curtain. Panting, he consults a hissing, steam-powered POCKETWATCH.)

WHITLOCK (aside): Ha! A full ninety-seven seconds remain at my disposal. For once, I shall honour Lady Cadence with the punctuality befitting a fortnightly tutor in the Euclidean arts, particularly one who dares to harbour a passion so presumptuous that I dare not breathe it aloud, alone though I be in an antiquated alley of this charming but rusticated hamlet. (He approaches the CENTRE of the curtain.) Now I need only cross our sole plaza, which is, of course, perpetually deserted.

(The CURTAIN opens.)

(Scene: The central PLAZA of the hamlet Fork-in-the-Heigh. The VILLAGE CLOCK shows TWO minutes to TEN. A MOB of arguing VILLAGERS fills the entire PLAZA, completely OBSTRUCTING WHITLOCK’s path to the TOWN HOUSE of LADY CADENCE, which stands on the far side of the plaza at R. of stage.)

WHITLOCK: Brass tacks! What’s all this?

VILLAGER 1: (slaps WHITLOCK’s face) Watch your language, sirrah! Though I suppose even a man of science can be forgiven a smidgen of profanity, given the morning’s outrageous events.

WHITLOCK: What events? Never mind, I’ve no time! (He attempts to push past, but the VILLAGERS lock ARMS around him in CONCENTRIC CIRCLES. As they GYRATE with WHITLOCK as their unwilling MAYPOLE, VILLAGER 1 addresses them ALL in SONG.)

SONG–VILLAGERS

(emphatic, even thumping)

 

VILLAGER 1: What’s all this? How remiss! What a social abyss!
  Our enamoured inventor in ignorant bliss!
VILLAGERS: A momentous event he has managed to miss!
  We’ll ensure he remains here as we reminisce.
VILLAGER 1: For in this very place, from the reaches of Space,
  We have coolly conferred with an alien race!
VILLAGERS: Yes, in this very place, with a grin on our face,
  We have cravenly cringed to an alien race.

WHITLOCK: (speaks) I say, did you call me enamoured? How dare you imply–

VILLAGER 1: (sings) I confess, these are news I expected to stun,
  But I solemnly swear by the nose of a nun,
  It’s the truth, or my name isn’t ‘VILLAGER 1′.
VILLAGERS: It’s the truth! (Though he wishes the name were undone.
  What kind of a mother would saddle her son
  with a grave appellation like ‘VILLAGER 1’?)

VILLAGER 1’s MOTHER: (popping up at the back of the crowd) Me!

WHITLOCK: (to VILLAGER 1) Why on Earth should I be stunned by an ‘alien race’? A few foreigners on holiday–

VILLAGER 1: Foreigners? These ‘foreigners’ ain’t from Earth at all! Why, in this very place, among our very own fields (now much tramplified), we have entertained and intervened a star vessel from another world.

WHITLOCK: What?

(The VILLAGE CLOCK begins to gong TEN O’CLOCK. LADY CADENCE opens her front door, but WHITLOCK, his back to her, babbles on.)

WHITLOCK: How could a vessel voyage across the gulf of Space? And why ever would it disembark at the hamlet of Fork-in-the-Heigh? Why not London? Paris? Anywhere?

(The VILLAGERS scowl and mutter in OFFENCE.)

VILLAGER 1: Well, sir, it seems they hadn’t your Baedeker to plan their tour. They just landed, that’s all, and after we’d made their acquaintance, we considered it prudential to return them starward.

WHITLOCK: You sent them away? Imagine what wonders they might have bequeathed us! What advancements in knowledge! Instrumentation! Evening dress! (He spares a rueful GLANCE for his doubtful TWEED.) How could you? Brass–

LADY CADENCE: Mr. Cartwright.

WHITLOCK: Lady Cadence!

(The VILLAGERS scatter with murmurs of ‘Fine day, Your Ladyship’, ‘Beg pardon, Your Ladyship’, ‘Do avert your eyes from my plebeian squalor, Your Ladyship’, etc.)

LADY CADENCE: Once again, Mr. Cartwright, you have preferred the company of your contraptions to my own.

WHITLOCK: I beg your indulgence! I had come unto the very gates of the paradise of promptitude when I found myself entangled, nay, ambushed, by the greatest discovery of our age!

LADY CADENCE: Kindly spare us your elaborate excuses.

SONG–LADY CADENCE, WHITLOCK

(quick and strident)

 

LADY CADENCE: Every man with rationality,
  Must acknowledge the centrality
  And immerse his personality
  In the joy of punctuality!
   
WHITLOCK: But a tragic street fatality,
  Or a passing principality,
  Or the slightest technicality
  Can obstruct one’s–

LADY CADENCE: Enough! Mr. Cartwright, I shall no longer require your services.

WHITLOCK: But, Lady Cartwright–I mean–Lady Cadence–

LADY CADENCE: How can I learn the intervals of Geometry from a man so consistently unfamiliar with the intervals of the clock? Good day, Mr. Cartwright.

(JACQUENETTE, personal automaton to LADY CADENCE and dressed in the latest French fashion, appears at the door. At her back, the HOSE providing her STEAM POWER emerges modestly from a pink satin FLOUNCE above her BUSTLE.)

JACQUENETTE: (with a small, unintentional HISS of STEAM) Milady!

(LADY CADENCE silences her with a gesture.)

WHITLOCK: (deflated) Good day. (He stumbles away towards L. of stage.)

JACQUENETTE: Ah! What a scene to arouse the sympathy! If only my eyes had the ducts of tears!

(LADY CADENCE turns her back to the retreating WHITLOCK, SIGHS, and CLASPS her HANDS.)

LADY CADENCE: (slowly) If he only knew.

SONG–LADY CADENCE

(slow and lilting)

 

LADY CADENCE: His discovery’s long overdue
  Of the passions so deep and so true
  That within me abide and accrue–
  Alas, if he only knew!
   
  With the feminine diligence due,
  I have offered him clue after clue.
JACQUENETTE: Then milady, do tell him what’s true!
LADY CADENCE: I say! Let the man pursue!

(LADY CADENCE sighs, glides down her steps into the deserted plaza, and PINES at R. of stage. JACQUENETTE loops her excess HOSE over one arm and follows.)

JACQUENETTE: (still singing) Perhaps he thinks your sympathy
  Is only geometric?
LADY CADENCE: He can’t believe I care for Math
  So useless and eccentric.
JACQUENETTE: Perhaps he fears your firm farewell
  Is meant to be forever?
LADY CADENCE: Not true! He knows he must pursue
  And win me by endeavour!

(WHITLOCK, meanwhile, at far L. of stage, rests an ELBOW on an abandoned PITCHFORK STALL marked ‘SOUVENIRS’. He sings.)

WHITLOCK: There’s no deed that I doubt I would do–
  I’d acquire a minor tattoo!
  I’d consume a bucolic fondue!
  Alas, she would still eschew.

(As he CONTINUES to SING, JACQUENETTE turns sharply and STRIDES towards him, to the full length of her HOSE. The MUSIC swells.)

LADY CADENCE: Thus I trust he’s preparing to woo.-
WHITLOCK: With disgust, she has bid me adieu.
JACQUENETTE: By my rust! Now Monsieur‘s singing too!
ALL: Alas, if he (she) only knew!

(LADY CADENCE and JACQUENETTE withdraw into the HOUSE.)

WHITLOCK: Brass tacks! How shall I ever regain her esteem?

Shall I confess my true feelings? Impossible! She could never accept a man so wanting in punctuality.

If only I could somehow re-live the last few minutes...

Wait! Of course! If a vessel can voyage through the gulf of Space, why not the River of Time?

Ha! I’ll invent a Punctuality Machine! How could I have missed a solution so simple? I’ll construct such a device in no time at all! To my workshop! Huzzah!

CURTAIN

ACT 2

SCENE 1

(Scene: The PLAZA, now empty. The VILLAGE CLOCK shows a QUARTER to TEN. An EXPLOSION sounds off-stage. WHITLOCK is thrown on at L. of stage. He staggers up, his TWEED SINGED and SMOULDERING.)

WHITLOCK: Quarter to ten! It worked! Francis Bacon and eggs, my invention actually worked! I have traversed the boundaries of Space and Time! And more than that–I’m early!

(WHITLOCK jaunts across the PLAZA and knocks on LADY CADENCE’s DOOR. JACQUENETTE answers, followed by LADY CADENCE.)

JACQUENETTE: Monsieur Cartwright! Early? It cannot be! Help! The impostor!

LADY CADENCE: Nonsense. No human agency could replicate that tweed.

WHITLOCK: Lady Cadence, if I might draw your attention to the time.

LADY CADENCE: Mr. Cartwright, this is unprecedented! I commend you.

WHITLOCK: I accept your commendation, my lady.

LADY CADENCE: I acknowledge your acceptance, Mr. Cartwright.

WHITLOCK: I savour your acknowledgement, my lady.

LADY CADENCE: Savour! Mr. Cartwright, let us keep our metaphors within the bounds of propriety.

(Off-stage, concealed behind the SHOPPES that line the PLAZA, STRANGE VOICES cry, ‘Vril, Vril, Vril!’)

WHITLOCK: The alien race! I’m early! Great Scott!

(A platoon of VRILLIANS enters from back-stage, marching in single file into the PLAZA. These BEINGS from ANOTHER WORLD wear hip-high silver BOOTS, sparkling white EVENING SUITS, and matching CAPES with towering COLLARS and silver TRIM. Their fantastical SKIN glares in strident STRIPES of PURPLE and YELLOW. Their leader, VRIL, stops to sing, brandishing a tall STAFF.)

SONG–VRIL

(a bombastic march)

 

VRIL: Vril! Vril! Vril!
VRILLIANS: Vril!
VRIL: We cry in voices shrill!
VRILLIANS: Shrill!
VRIL: And in tender mem’ries drill!
VRILLIANS: Drill!
   
VRIL: That we are the Vrillians,
  Belovèd by millions,
  The Vrillians, the fellows of Vril!
VRILLIANS: Huzzah!
  The Vrillians, the vassals of Vril!

(As the VRILLIANS form in RANKS around VRIL, the VILLAGERS spill out after them from back-stage.)

VRIL: I am Vril. Am I not splendid?

VRILLIANS: You are!

VRIL: I was addressing our new friends.

(The VRILLIANS hush each other with cries of ‘Quiet!’ ‘Hold your tongue!’ ‘Shut up your garret!’ etc.)

VILLAGER 1: (stepping forward) I believe I speak for everyone, sir, when I say that you are definitely splendid.

VILLAGERS: (cheering) Splendid!

(JACQUENETTE, all aflutter, produces a steam-powered LADY’s FAN. Even LADY CADENCE seems MESMERIZED by VRIL, and WHITLOCK notes her FASCINATION.)

VRIL: (to VILLAGER 1) By ‘everyone’, I trust you do mean everyone?

VILLAGER 1: Indeed, sir! Every last one!

VRIL: On this entire celestial sphere?

VILLAGER 1: Absolutely, sir! There’s naught but our humble hamlet on all this verdacious Earth.

WHITLOCK: (aside) What means this audacious deception?

VRIL: How fortunate we happened to land so near!

VILLAGER 1: Fortunate indeed! You’ve captured every heart our Earth’s got for the taking, sir, and you’ve still got time to astound your next world before tea. Three cheers for Vril!

VILLAGERS & VRILLIANS: Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!

VRIL: My Vrillians! Once again, we have journeyed to a faraway sphere and discovered kindred spirits. Like you, they all rejoice in my irresistible magnificence.

VILLAGERS: We do!

WHITLOCK: (to VILLAGER 1) Why is everyone so smitten by this revolting creature?

VILLAGER 1: (to WHITLOCK, sotto voce) Smitten? Not in the least! It’s all bunkum! Flam! Titotular bosh!

WHITLOCK: You fail to clarify.

VRIL: (to VRILLIANS) Now let us return to our star vessel!

VILLAGER 1: (to WHITLOCK) See? Off they go!

LADY CADENCE: (murmurs) Star vessel!

VRIL: And continue our quest throughout the heavens! What an appropriate moment for one final, spontaneous gesture of affection!

(VRIL extends a gleaming silver BOOT, which two VILLAGERS rush forward and begin to LICK. As VRIL turns to march up-stage, they scrabble to follow on their KNEES while still performing their ABLUTIONS. But VRIL sees LADY CADENCE, gasps, halts his procession, and STARES. LADY CADENCE modestly averts her EYES.)

VRIL: What is this? What strange admixture of desire, wonder, desire, fear, desire, and desire now wells within my muscular breast?

(WHITLOCK steps forward, but VILLAGER 1 clutches his arm.)

VILLAGER 1: Wait, Mr. Cartwright! You haven’t seen what he can do!

WHITLOCK: I can see what he’s doing!

VRIL: How can these feelings be? She’s pink!

LADY CADENCE: I beg your pardon?

SONG–VRIL

(slow, almost reflective)

 

VRIL: Neither purple nor yellow, but pink!
  Yet she’s somehow detected a chink
  In the guard of my heart, where she sinks
  And seeps, like a staining ink.
   
  Can a purplish prince really think
  Of begetting a permanent link
  With a species so specially pink?
  Alas, wouldn’t Mother blink?

(As VRIL lazily repeats his first stanza, the original, pre-time-traversal WHITLOCK (henceforth, ‘WHITLOCK 1′) enters from L. of stage and gasps at the scene. The time-traversed WHITLOCK (henceforth, ‘WHITLOCK 2′) spots him.)

WHITLOCK 2: Great Scott! It’s my original self! If Lady Cadence sees him, all is lost! She will easily deduce that my apparent punctuality is a mere time-traversing trick!

(WHITLOCK 2 hurries around the serenaded LADY CADENCE to confront WHITLOCK 1 at L. of stage.)

WHITLOCK 1: (seeing WHITLOCK 2) Brass tacks! (WHITLOCK 2 slaps him.) Ow! Who are you? A long-lost twin?

WHITLOCK 2: Don’t be ridiculous. I’m you.

WHITLOCK 1: I beg to differ.

WHITLOCK 2: You do differ–by several hours. I, having lived those hours, have returned to this temporal juncture via Punctuality Machine.

WHITLOCK 1: Nonsense! I’ve never heard of such a preposterous device.

WHITLOCK 2: Naturally. You haven’t invented it yet.

WHITLOCK 1: Then where is it?

WHITLOCK 2: The machine puts me through time. I didn’t manage to enable the machine itself to travel.

WHITLOCK 1: Why not?

WHITLOCK 2: There wasn’t time! Besides, I knew you would invent it again shortly.

WHITLOCK 1: I most certainly will not! I have an appointment to keep! What’s more–

WHITLOCK 2: Quiet! They’re stopping!

(VRIL completes his song and takes the hand of LADY CADENCE.)

VRIL: O pinkish delight, my mind is settled. You shall voyage with me through the heavens and reign as my Salmon Queen. (VRIL grips her ARM. LADY CADENCE cries out in dismay. Both WHITLOCKS rush forward, but WHITLOCK 2 knocks WHITLOCK 1 down with a blow to the HEAD, then gasps and touches his own SCALP gingerly.)

WHITLOCK 2: (to VRIL) Stop at once, you star-smearing narcissist!

VRIL: I beg your pardon, you cannot be directing that offensive tone towards myself?

WHITLOCK 2: I am indeed, you delusional, despicable, undesirable–

VRIL: Undesirable! Alas, now who is delusional? Am I not belovèd by every rational creature on this entire orb?

VILLAGERS: Huzzah!

RECITATIVE

(fast, rhythmic speech)

 

VILLAGERS: Huzzah for the Vrillians,
  Adorèd by millions!
  We humble civilians
  All weep that they go!
   
WHITLOCK 2: (to VRIL) In my humble opinion,
  Be off to oblivion!
  Their tears crocodilian
  Will dry here below.
   
  Your act is vaudevillian,
  Your faults are octillion!
  Your manners reptilian
  Would shock a Brazilian!
  Alas, but a Vrillian’s a pitiful beau!
  A despicable, fickle, unprintable foe!

LADY CADENCE: (still in the grip of VRIL) Mr. Cartwright, my most mannered acquaintances hail from Brazil.

WHITLOCK 2: My apologies, Your Ladyship. It’s a difficult rhyme.

VRIL: And where, pray tell, is Brazil?

WHITLOCK 2: Oh dear.

VILLAGER 1: ‘Brazil’? Ha! Ha ha! What a fancy! This ‘Brazil’ ain’t any place at all, sir! And it’s criminal expensive! Or my name isn’t Villager–

VRIL: Silence!

(VRIL aims his STAFF, an EXPLOSION sounds, and VILLAGER 1 DISTINTEGRATES into a PUFF of VAPOUR. VRILLIANS seize WHITLOCK 2.)

VRIL: Mr. Cartwright, you must have missed my earlier demonstration. And in your ignorance, you have revealed the minor detail that your entire civilisation does not consist of one hamlet named ‘Fork-in-the-Heigh’! No, you must have thousands, millions of pink brethren, all awaiting the chance to adore me or die! Well. I presume I have your answer?

WHITLOCK 2: Quite.

(VRIL points his STAFF at WHITLOCK 2.)

LADY CADENCE: No! Not Whitlock! He is my... Geometry tutor.

VRIL: Mathematics, my peach, are useless and eccentric. However, anything to develop your diverting simulation of a mind. He shall have time to reconsider.

WHITLOCK 2: (as two VRILLIANS DRAG him up-stage, STOMPING in concert) She called me Whitlock!

VRIL: (to LADY CADENCE) Come, my rosette coquette.

LADY CADENCE: You cannot hope to rule an entire world with a single staff.

VRIL: No. That would be rash.

(Each VRILLIAN produces a STAFF, which they SLAM in unison. JACQUENETTE faints. LADY CADENCE frowns. Deeply.)

CURTAIN

SCENE 2

(Scene: A cell in the VILLAGE PRISON. WHITLOCK 2 sits on a bench under a BARRED WINDOW.)

WHITLOCK 2: She called me Whitlock...

(The DOOR opens softly, and LADY CADENCE enters.)

WHITLOCK 2: Lady Cadence!

LADY CADENCE: Hush! Your gaoler is somniferously indisposed, having sampled, at my urging, a beverage of lamentable potency. You must fly!

WHITLOCK 2: Then come with me! Let me atone for my abominable lapse in judgement! Without my confounded meddling, this evril villain–that is, this evil Vrillian–would have departed at once with his violet Vermilions–I mean, violent Vrillians–

LADY CADENCE: No, Mr. Cartwright, the lapse in judgement was entirely my own. I am not vain, but a realistic assessment of my personal charms should have dictated caution in an encounter with a strange male of alien origin.

WHITLOCK 2: (aside) Too true. (to LADY CADENCE) But a small miscalculation must not dictate a lifetime of misery!

LADY CADENCE: Perhaps ‘misery’ would be too strong a word.

WHITLOCK 2: Too strong? For entering wedlock with an alien creature who disintegrates the helpless on a whim? Who traverses the aether seeking new celestial spheres solely to terrify the inhabitants into the falsest pretence of adulation?

LADY CADENCE: I don’t deny that he has his faults.

WHITLOCK 2: You–you have feelings for this monster!

LADY CADENCE: Because this ‘monster’ has feelings!

WHITLOCK 2: So did Caligula! Bad feelings!

LADY CADENCE: Oh, Mr. Cartwright...

SONG–LADY CADENCE and WHITLOCK 2

(with feeling)

 

LADY CADENCE: How can woman resist him? He broods!
  The mysterious hues of his moods
  And the energy which he exudes
  All compel an analysis shrewd.

(LADY CADENCE sweeps past WHITLOCK 2 to soloize at the BARRED WINDOW. WHITLOCK 2 withdraws to sing in the DARKEST CORNER.)

LADY CADENCE: To a prude, all his ardour is poorly construed–
WHITLOCK 2: Has he wooed her so quickly with cravings so crude?
LADY CADENCE: I conclude that at last I am truly pursued–
WHITLOCK 2: She eludes me, she’s his, and I shouldn’t intrude..
LADY CADENCE: Though a tutor’s attentions may yet be renewed.
WHITLOCK 2: I’ll occlude my desires and never intrude.

WHITLOCK 2: (speaks) I wish you every happiness, Your Ladyship. Surely your civilising influence will avert many a disintegration, as it has averted mine.

LADY CADENCE: O masculine race! You can build a machine to traverse the corridors of time, but you fail to learn the most elementary dynamics of conversing with a woman!

(LADY CADENCE storms out, leaving the DOOR open.)

WHITLOCK 2: What? Lady Cadence! I meant no offence! Alas, I’ve lost her again, for the last time.

Wait. Time! (He PACES, pivoting with each new THOUGHT at a rate commensurate with the diminutive dimensions of his CELL.)

I can prevent her ever meeting that monster!

But no. How could I? She loves him. A simulated punctuality might be forgiven, but what man of honour can woo a woman who is fated to find True Love with another?

Although one could argue that Vril is hardly harmless...

Bah! Can I sacrifice the happiness of the woman I love on the pretext of averting global annihilation? Begone, false virtue! Under thy clerical cloak lurks the foetid ghoul of Selfishness!

And yet... poor Villager 1. There must be a way...

Brass tacks! (He stops.) There is. (He sighs, then STRIDES out the DOOR into DARKNESS.)

CURTAIN

ACT 3

(Scene: VILLAGE PLAZA, as before. The VILLAGE CLOCK shows TWENTY minutes to TEN. All is empty, save an OLD BEGGAR WOMAN shrouded in a heavy black shawl. An EXPLOSION sounds off-stage, and WHITLOCK (henceforth, ‘WHITLOCK 3′) is thrown on-stage as before, his TWEED AFLAME and BILLOWING with SMOKE. )

WHITLOCK 3: (as he SLAPS out the FLAMES) Cursed machine! (He sees the OLD BEGGAR WOMAN.) Ah! Forgive my lack of charity, grandmother, but I seem to have left my pocketbook in the future.

OLD BEGGAR WOMAN: Forgiven, sir, and well expungified. I’ll make my beseechments to Lady Cadence.

WHITLOCK 3: As will I. (He climbs LADY CADENCE’s steps, then halts.) (aside) Great Scott! I remember no such beggar present at either iteration of my interview with Lady Cadence. By what cause does she appear now, before my earliest arrival? Have I incited alterations which flow backwards in the River of Time? Are these the tremors of a coming cosmic cataclysm? Alas... such speculations only squander time so dearly won. (He knocks at the DOOR. JACQUENETTE answers.)

JACQUENETTE: Monsieur Cartwright! Early?

WHITLOCK 3: (aside) An identical response! Perhaps free will is a mere illusion. On the other hand, she’s an automaton.

(JACQUENETTE slaps him.)

JACQUENETTE: How dare you employ such a term for a lady!

WHITLOCK 3: How dare you eavesdrop on an obvious aside!

(LADY CADENCE appears at the DOOR. Coughing, she WAVES away the SMOKE which continues to issue from WHITLOCK’s TWEED.)

LADY CADENCE: Mr. Cartwright? Are you quite extinguished?

WHITLOCK 3: Lady Cadence! Come, we haven’t much time. (He takes her ARM and ushers her into the PLAZA. JACQUENETTE follows, PROTESTING in FRENCH.)

LADY CADENCE: I demand to know the meaning of this impertinence!

WHITLOCK 3: In a few moments, your one true love will enter this plaza.

LADY CADENCE: Mr. Cartwright! You’re raving! I assure you, that is quite impossible.

(An EXPLOSION sounds, and WHITLOCK 2, only MODERATELY SINGED, is thrown on-stage as before. LADY CADENCE gasps.)

WHITLOCK 2 & 3: (together) Great Scott!

WHITLOCK 3: I forgot that you would be barging in.

WHITLOCK 2: (aside) Brass tacks! I appear to be preceded by my future self! But perhaps I can yet conceal from Lady Cadence the secret of my punctuality. (to WHITLOCK 3) I know thee not, foul foreigner flambé! Unhand that lady at once!

WHITLOCK 3: Silence, you pompous idiot! You’re about to enslave mankind to an alien race!

LADY CADENCE: (to WHITLOCK 3) You are raving! (She WRENCHES free of his GRASP and steps back from both WHITLOCKS.)

WHITLOCK 2: I haven’t enslaved anyone! The alien race has already embarked!

WHITLOCK 3: Not yet! Not after they meet you!

LADY CADENCE: I utterly fail to comprehend.

WHITLOCK 3: I invented a machine, Your Ladyship. A machine to traverse the corridors of time.

LADY CADENCE: Impossible! But why?

WHITLOCK 2: Don’t say it!

WHITLOCK 3: To repair my frequent lapses in punctuality.

JACQUENETTE: Milady!

(LADY CADENCE silences her with a gesture.)

LADY CADENCE: The effort seems excessive.

WHITLOCK 3: Alas, the cure has proven worse than the disease. But in my travels I have learned that your path to happiness lies with this creature from the stars... Vril.

(Off-stage, as before, are heard rhythmic cries of ‘Vril, Vril, Vril!’)

LADY CADENCE: Why do they chant his name?

WHITLOCK 3: Because he annihilates all who dislike him.

LADY CADENCE, JACQUENETTE, and WHITLOCK 2: What?

WHITLOCK 3: He believes our village is the whole of our Earthly race! If we assure him he is universally belovèd, Your Ladyship, he will depart once more to the heavens. With you.

LADY CADENCE: How can you sacrifice me to this monster?

WHITLOCK 3: Sacrifice? On the contrary! You love him! He has feelings! He broods!

LADY CADENCE: He broods? A loathsome reversion to adolescence!

WHITLOCK 3: That’s not what you said twelve hours from now!

WHITLOCK 2: You’re mad, Whitlock. Lady Cadence would never stoop to greet such a fiend, much less grant him her affection.

WHITLOCK 3: You haven’t heard her after she meets him!

WHITLOCK 2: But that hasn’t happened yet!

WHITLOCK 3: It’s happened to me!

LADY CADENCE: Stop talking to yourself!

WHITLOCK 2: I won’t be tyrannized by time, Whitlock-from-twelve-hours-hence! I have conquered time for her sake. (WHITLOCK 2 takes her HANDS.)

RECITATIVE

(triumphant chant)

 

WHITLOCK 2: My lady, if indeed a fiend will soon, by some preternatural power, darken your heart, allow me to use these last few moments of light to offer you my own.

(WHITLOCK 2 kneels before LADY CADENCE.)

JACQUENETTE: (chants) Oh, milady!

LADY CADENCE: (chants) I accept.

WHITLOCK 3: (speaks) What? But you said–that is, you will say–

(The VRILLIANS march on-stage, as before, followed by the VILLAGERS and led by the singing VRIL.)

SONG–VRIL

VRIL: Vril! Vril! Vril!
VRILLIANS: Vril!
VRIL: We cry in voices–

(He sees LADY CADENCE and shrieks in surprise.)

VRIL: What is this? What strange admixture of desire, wonder, desire...

WHITLOCK 3: (aside) Not again.

VRIL: (frowning at WHITLOCK 2) ...and what minion dares to obstruct the object of my attraction?

WHITLOCK 3: Your pardon, sir. Allow me to introduce... myself. (He gestures to WHITLOCK 2.)

VRIL: A duplicator! What foul sorcery is this?

WHITLOCK 3: (aside) A ‘duplicator’? A-ha!

WHITLOCK 2: It’s not a ‘duplicator’, you purple prince of preposterous–

WHITLOCK 3: What perspicacity, Your Excellency! A ‘duplicator’ indeed! And imagine if my humble device were employed upon... yourself.

WHITLOCK 2: (aside to WHITLOCK 3) What are you doing?

RANDOM VRILLIAN: Our joy would be doubled!

RANDOM VRILLIAN 2: Squared!

VRIL: No, you cretins! Swayed by my duplicate’s overpowering rhetoric and charisma, the multitude might prefer him!

VRILLIANS: Never!

VRIL: Silence! I cannot risk such a loss to all the worlds! Come, my Vrillians! Let us leave this dangerous orb at once!

VILLAGER 1: (aside) O rapture!

WHITLOCK 2: (to WHITLOCK 3) We’re brilliant!

WHITLOCK 3: (to LADY CADENCE) Quick! I insist you go with him!

VRIL: As do I.

LADY CADENCE: Mr. Cartwright! I have canonically and definitively requited your love!

WHITLOCK 3: But only because I circumvented the truer passion you would have conceived for Vril under the correct conditions!

VRIL: For instance, seeing me.

LADY CADENCE: Spare me this torturous paroxysm of conscience! Do you love me or not?

WHITLOCK 3: Of course! I already told you!

WHITLOCK 2: No, I did!

WHITLOCK 3: But how can you enter wedlock with a Whitlock when a Vrillian grips the key to your heart? You told me! You love him!

OLD BEGGAR WOMAN: (in a younger voice) To be frank–I may have exaggerated my affection.

(The OLD BEGGAR WOMAN throws off her shawl, revealing LADY CADENCE (henceforth, ‘LADY CADENCE 2′). At the sight of a second LADY CADENCE, VRIL cries out and recoils, only to behold WHITLOCK 1 entering from L. of stage with his customary tardiness.)

VRIL: Vrillians! To me! Already their vile duplicator vomits forth additional insidious spawn!

SONG–VRIL

(urgent)

 

VRIL: I’ll gather my Vrillians,
  And leave these civilians,
  Whose world makes me wince with concern.
   
  Within our own vessel,
  We’ll cosily nestle,
  To leave and to never return!

(VRIL and the VRILLIANS exeunt with dispatch.)

VILLAGERS: Huzzah!

WHITLOCK 3: (to the CADENCES) But why have you both forsaken your brooding prince?

LADY CADENCE 2: As it happens, O most insufferable Whitlock–

LADY CADENCE 1: (to LADY CADENCE 2) My dear, before you begin, a wisp of that dreadful cloak still clings to your hair. (She brushes away the offending DETRITUS.)

LADY CADENCE 2: Thank you, my dear. (They KISS each other’s CHEEKS.)

WHITLOCK 1: Lady Cadence, you’re calling me ‘Whitlock’.

LADY CADENCE 2: My dear man, you have already professed your love multiple times, in both the past and the future. I believe I am entitled to your praenomen.

WHITLOCK 1: (stunned) Take it. With my compliments.

WHITLOCK 3: When did I profess my love in the future? You professed your love for that alien potentate!

LADY CADENCE 2: How you do harp on that minor misunderstanding! The correct question is not when in the future but in which future.

WHITLOCK 1: Which future?

WHITLOCK 3: I confess, Lady Cadence, I share my confusion. Perhaps you could use an analogy from Geometry?

LADY CADENCE 2: Once and for all, I loathe Geometry.

(All three WHITLOCKS gasp.)

LADY CADENCE 1: Quite.

JACQUENETTE: (aside) But the mathematics are such the delight!

LADY CADENCE 2: However, one could conceive us each as traversing an independent, though often intersecting, ‘vector’ of chronology.

ALL WHITLOCKS: Ahh!

LADY CADENCE 2: Do you recall when Vril’s minions dragged you to prison?

WHITLOCKS 1 and 2, LADY CADENCE 1, and JACQUENETTE: Prison?

WHITLOCK 3: Indeed.

LADY CADENCE 2: Your original vector led not to release at my hands, but to a final appearance at the Court of Vril.

WHITLOCK 3: His Court?

LADY CADENCE 2: Due to redecorations of his star vessel, necessitated by our impending nuptials, he had temporarily established his Court in my parlour, to the great detriment of my ancestral carpet.

JACQUENETTE: Ah, no!

LADY CADENCE 2: When he gave you one last chance to grovel, you instead professed your love for me.

WHITLOCK 3: I have no memory of this.

LADY CADENCE 2: I shall never forget it! It was most affecting. A woman could scarcely ask for a more romantic declaration. Of course, you were promptly disintegrated, which somewhat lessened my elation.

WHITLOCK 3: How unfortunate!

LADY CADENCE 2: That night, seeking some appropriate and tasteful memento of your person, I slipped out to your workshop. There, I discovered your device. With it, I returned to the past, intersected your vector several hours before your execution, and released you from your cell.

WHITLOCK 3: Of course! In the prison, you spoke of my machine! But why the pretence of such a monstrous affection?

LADY CADENCE 2: Since I had precluded your future declaration in the face of death, I felt that a certain... urgency... might encourage a similar declaration in your cell. Alas, I miscalculated, and I fled in confusion. But on consideration, I resolved that, if I could not win your open affection, I could at least return to this temporal juncture and ensure the departure of those odious Vrillians.

(WHITLOCK 3 takes the hands of LADY CADENCE 2.)

WHITLOCK 3: Oh, Your Ladyship.

LADY CADENCE 2: (softly) Cadence.

LADY CADENCE 1: Yes?

(WHITLOCK 3 bends to kiss LADY CADENCE 2. WHITLOCK 2 kisses LADY CADENCE 1.)

WHITLOCK 1: And what of me?

JACQUENETTE: Monsieur Cartwright–

WHITLOCK 1: Not a chance.

(The VILLAGERS lock ARMS around the COUPLES and sing.)

FINALE

(with finality)

 

VILLAGERS: Osculation confirms that these Loves must be True!
  With relief, we’ll avert this device’s début

WHITLOCK 3: (to LADY CADENCE 2) But if no one invents the Punctuality Machine in the future, we won’t be together now!

WHITLOCK 2: You’re already together now! If a full repetition of events is required, what of your disintegration?

WHITLOCK 3: You were the one disintegrated–

(Both CADENCES kiss their WHITLOCKS quiet.)

WHITLOCK 1: (aside) Ah! What man of honour can but rejoice, to see his lady doubly beloved? And by suitors so superb!

(With a happy SHRUG, he joins the CIRCLE of spinning VILLAGERS as they finish the SONG.)

VILLAGERS: For cantankerous chaos will always ensue
  When attempting a tempting temporal redo!

FINIS


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Bill Powell lives in the scenic Shenandoah Valley of not-quite-Northern Virginia, where he eats and breathes regularly. He's currently writing comedy masquerading as a self-help blog at RichSkinnyWise.com. Visit him online at billpowell.org.

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2 Comments on “The Punctuality Machine, Or, A Steampunk Libretto”

2 Responses to “The Punctuality Machine, Or, A Steampunk Libretto”

  1. […] “The Punctuality Machine, Or, A Steampunk Libretto“ by Bill Powell WHITLOCK: (aside) An identical response! Perhaps free will is a mere illusion. On the other hand, she’s an automaton. […]

  2. […] and there was the Saturday night production of Bill Powell’s “The Punctuality Machine, Or, A Steampunk Libretto.” I was invited to play Jacquenette, Personal Automaton to Lady Cadence. French. Mobility […]

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