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“The Wager” from Lit Between the Ears, Volume One September 6, 2006

Posted by William Spear in >> Lit Between the Ears - Volume One, >> Playwriting, >> Radio Drama.
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The Wager is set at a dinner party in the home of wealthy banker, Geraldine Downes. The guests are “… bankers and investors – men and women of considerable wealth – and academics and intellects – men and women of considerable learning.”

The conversation evolves into a spirited debate over the relative merits of the death penalty versus life in prison. One of the academics says capital punishment is out of date and unsuitable for the country. The academic continues by declaring the death penalty should be replaced by imprisonment for life.

The discussion rages and the guests take strong positions on either side of the debate. One of the guests, Pat Chains, is singled out for an opinion: “Pat you’ve been quiet on the issue. What does your young mind say?”

Pat’s response is thoughtful: “The death sentence and the life sentence are equally immoral. But if I had to choose between the death penalty and imprisonment for life I’d choose the second. To live under any circumstances is better than not to live at all.”

Geraldine lashes out and bets five million dollars Pat wouldn’t survive five years of voluntary confinement. Pat counters that if the offer’s genuine make it 15 years. Other parties add more to the stakes. Both sides finally agree and the wager is set – if Pat stays in prison for fifteen years he gets 10 million dollars.

Pat’s confinement is within a small cottage, guarded by a watchman, on the furthest reaches of Geraldine’s estate surrounded by woods. All communications from the outside world are cut off. No television, no radio and no magazines or newspapers. Pat Chains will live the next fifteen years isolated from the present world.

The 15 years of confinement take a physical and emotional toll on Pat. He’s often heard crying late at night. His appearance grows haggard and thin. During the latter years, he takes to the Gospel.

The same 15 years are harsh to Geraldine. The stock market moves against her repeatedly. She makes riskier and riskier investments to recoup her losses but her fortune is halved and halved again. Her options are constrained by her debts and the millions of dollars she may have to pay Pat.

On the last night of the wager, a thunderstorm is lashing the countryside. Geraldine sneaks out to kill the prisoner. It is the only way to avoid the inevitable scandal of not keeping the wager. The watchman has left the post seeking shelter from the storm.

Geraldine sneaks into the cottage to find Pat; he is sleeping. What does Geraldine do? What is she willing to do to escape The Wager?

Lighting the Fuse: An Excerpt from The Wager

The following diaolgue opens the play and sets the tone for Geraldine’s excitable character:

MUSIC:     UP AND ESTABLISH: QUAINT CHAMBER PIECE. UNDER TO BED.

OLD GERALDINE:    It was fifteen years ago this very night. I had a party for bankers and investors – men and women of considerable wealth – and academics and intellects – men and women of considerable learning. One of the academics – Terry Moores – said capital punishment was out of date and …

MUSIC:     BED OUT.

OLD GERALDINE and TERRY:    … immoral …

TERRY:     … and unsuitable for the country. The death penalty should be replaced by imprisonment for life.

HELEN:    Here here. Well said Terry.

YOUNG GERALDINE:    I don’t agree with you. I’ve not tried either the death penalty or imprisonment for life. But the death penalty is far more moral and humane than imprisonment for life.

SAL:        Well put Geraldine. I quite agree.

HELEN:    How can anyone come to that conclusion?

SAL:        Capital punishment kills a man at once but lifelong imprisonment kills him slowly. The executioner who kills in one moment is more humane than the one who drags life out of you for years.

TERRY:    Both are equally immoral. Both have the same object – to take away life. The State is not God. It doesn’t have the right to take away what it cannot restore.

ALL:        (SPIRITED ARGUING) “Death penalty.” “Life imprisonment.” “Better to be killed at once.” “Stay alive … by all means.”

TERRY:    (OVER ALL) Pat you’ve been quiet on the issue. What does your young mind say?

PAT:        The death sentence and the life sentence are equally immoral. But if I had to choose between the death penalty and imprisonment for life I’d choose the second. To live under any circumstances is better than not to live at all.

SFX:         YOUNG GERALDINE SLAMS FIST ONTO TABLE THREE TIMES.

YOUNG GERALDINE:    No … no … no. That’s not true. I bet five million you wouldn’t stay in solitary confinement for five years.

PAT:         If your offer’s genuine than I accept the bet. But I wager fifteen years not five.

YOUNG GERALDINE: Fifteen years? Done. Ladies and gentlemen I stake five million dollars.

PAT: Agreed. You stake your millions and I stake my freedom.

MUSIC: UP AND ESTABLISH: DRAMATIC AND CHURNING FROM PREVIOUS DIALOGUE. UNDER TO BED.

ANNOUNCER: This presentation of The Wager is based upon an Anton Chekhov short story and stars __________, __________ and __________. The performance is directed by __________ and William Spear wrote the script.

Note Pat’s last line – “You stake your millions and I stake my freedom.” – is immediately followed by dramatic and compelling music. The intent is to establish the functional equivalent of a cliff hanger to keep the audience hooked and force them to come back after the Opening Credits.

Lighting the Fuse: Another Excerpt from The Wager
Pat’s imprisonment, and its impact upon him, are readily presented – the sobbing at night, reading from light novels to linguistics to the Gospel and his increasingly unkempt manner. All of which are plausible due to his circumstances.

Not so unexpected, but equally supported, is Geraldine’s reactions to her fortunes:

OLD GERALDINE: At the same time the stock market moved against me. My fortune – once grand and in the hundreds of millions – was halved. “Just a bit of bad luck” I told Sal and Helen. But I prayed my luck would change.

MUSIC: UP AND ESTABLISH: BIG CHURCH AND RELIGIOUS MUSIC. UNDER TO BED.

OLD GERALDINE: In his eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth years of confinement Pat sat as still as a cross and read only the Gospel. The six hundred learned volumes previously mastered were discarded for the thin, easily comprehended text of Gospel.

MUSIC: LET BED BREATHE.

OLD GERALDINE: But if his new Chosen Text was easy to understand the stock markets were not.

ALL: (BED) “Buy.” “Sell.” “Buy.”

OLD GERALDINE: The value of my investments halved again and teetered between recovery and further disaster. Small gains on one day were wiped out by losses on the next.

ALL: (BED: FRANTICALLY) “Sell.” “At any price.” “Sell it all.”

OLD GERALDINE: I grasped at long shots doubling and tripling my positions only to watch my wealth disappear faster.

Lighting the Fuse: A Third Excerpt from The Wager
Geraldine’s disastrous maneuvering in the stock markets have decimated her. She is 45 minutes away from losing the wager and being destroyed financially.

SFX: OFF MIC: CLOCK STRIKES ONCE FOR 11:15 PM.

OLD GERALDINE: Sal – my co-conspirator in the wager – joined me. As did the prisoner’s friend Helen.

SAL: In forty-five minutes it’ll be twelve midnight.

HELEN: Pat’ll win the bet. Incredibly stupendously he’ll win the bet.

OLD GERALDINE: And I’ll be ruined. Finished. Bankrupt forever.

HELEN: It’s not that bad.

SAL: You must’ve set some aside.

OLD GERALDINE: No. I’ve doubled and tripled for years. My losses are many times what you’ve suffered. (TO SELF) Cursed bet. Why didn’t he die?

SAL: Pat’ll not let the bet ruin you.

OLD GERALDINE: He’ll take my last penny and marry. He’ll enjoy life and gamble on the stock market. All the while I’ll look at him with envy – like a beggar.

HELEN: He’ll help you.

OLD GERALDINE: That’s even worse. He’ll say the same thing every day (IMITATING PAT): “I am indebted to you for the happiness of my life. Let me help you.” (OWN VOICE) No it’s too much.

HELEN: (OFF MIC) Come back.

SAL: (OFF MIC) Where’ll you be?

OLD GERALDINE: (CALLING TO THEM) In my chambers contemplating my financial death.

MUSIC: BED: OMINOUS FORESHADOWING.

OLD GERALDINE: My words were only partly true. I was going to my chambers but the death I foresaw was the prisoner’s not mine. It was the only means of saving myself from bankruptcy and disgrace. (BEAT) I retrieved the key to the cottage.

MUSIC: LET BED BREATHE. THEN OUT.

SFX: EXTERNAL: RAIN AND THUNDER. CLOCK STRIKE ONCE FOR 11:30 PM.

Chekhov’s short story, The Bet, is taut and riveting. Its adaptation, The Wager, as excerpted here and published in full in Lit Between the Ears, Volume One: Chekhov, O. Henry, Spear and Tarkington On the Air, brings the dialogue to life through radio.

Enjoy.

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