THE MYSTERY OF TIME
Produced at the Albert Hall Theatre on the 17th January, 1905, with original incidental music for the violin.
The Past Mr. Archibald McLean The Present Mr. Lewis Casson The Future Mrs. Gwendolen Bishop Mrs. Gwendolen Paget played the music.
Copyrighted in September, 1904.
I suppose that there are thousands of people in England and as many millions elsewhere, who are trying in one way or another to learn that ancient art, taught by the wise from the beginning of recorded time, the Art of Guiding the Mind. And those who study it, from whatever point of view, find that it has the compelling fascination common to all faithful Art, and that it gradually absorbs the very life of the Devotee, so that he lives in it alone.
I have imagined a discipline in which the struggle has been to fix the mind on that imperceptible point of Time called the Present. My little play shows the Devotee at last succeeding in ridding himself of all those wandering thoughts that formerly carried him perpetually either into the Past or the Future; and I have imagined personifications of those two attributes of human consciousness to be terrified because they see the mind of the Devotee melting into the state beyond Mind in which the Past and Future have no part. That state I have endeavoured to suggest by the words: “I stood naked in a bleak and dark eternity and filled it with my exultation.”
In the scriptures that attempt to describe that unspeakable state, we read first of the discipline which strips off, as it were, the bodily sensations and the mental activities in order that the Devotee may find liberation in Pure Being. For liberation is the essence alike of the ecstasy of the Saints, who have cried to us that “Where there is Nothing there is God”; and of the ecstasy of the Wise, who have known that he who can desire Nothing must in himself be one with all things.
Alas! the cynic in us each knows full well that we desire nothing that we have.
So far I have given one interpretation of my symbols, others might prove more generally acceptable; for instance the familiar idea of the Devotee assailed by the Devil, the Flesh and the World in the form of intellect, senses and desires. For the Past is keen of wit and full of experience, the Future strong and full of Hope, and the Woman cries like the World for help only in order that she may devour him who listens to her wily voice. Finally, I have heard that to think of the Past and the Future is to exist in a Temporal state, while to think with real intensity upon the Present is to know the Eternal state.
THE MYSTERY OF TIME
Past Present Future
The Present is seated on a throne, a man in the prime of life, his eyes closed. He is sitting rigidly as if in a trance. He is dressed in dark blue.
The Past, an old man in black with a skull cap; of a grotesque appearance and voice. He is guarding the door on the Present's left.
The Future, a beautiful boy in a dress of the colour of the dawn with an iridescent cloak of gossamer. He is on the right guarding another door.
The Past and Future look at each other cautiously, nod, and creep quietly across the stage; they meet to the left front of the throne and talk as if they were afraid of being overheard.
Future. What will come of it, do you think?
Past. There is danger for us: I've always found it most unpleasant.
Future. How is that?
Past (in the piping voice of the old). I am sorry to tell you, my amiable young friend, that in my experience, when our master sits too long upon that throne which he calls The Place of Truth—it is very grievous—but I am obliged to confess that we are apt to become totally extinct.
Future. But I will not, I will not fade and fade until I die. (Past shrugs his shoulders.) How can we resist? Surely you can think of something to do?
Past (slowly). All we can do is to try to break in upon his reverie.
Future. Go on! go on!
Past. I have tried my utmost.
Future. Try again.
Past. I have tried all ways.
Future. But why are you so powerless?
Past. Look. I will tell you our secret. The truth is, you and I have no Reality. We are ever-changing phantoms.
Future. And Reality is a treasure that he, our master, holds? Past. Yes, but he does not know it. He must never know it, or we die.
Future. Oh, Misery!
Past. Unless we keep his fancy dancing to our measure, he'll find it out at last and we shall disappear.
Future. But has he never found it out before?
Past. Never completely. He strives after something he calls the mystery of being for a while, and we hide ourselves and wait until he grows a little weary of beatitude. With delicate feet Doubt enters his mind, and we spring out once more to trouble his ageless peace.
Future. Where is this mighty Spirit of Doubt that I may call her?
Past. Alas! we have no power to call her.
Future. Why not? Have we not power unlimited in every place but this?
Past. Doubt is the mother of phantoms; she brought us forth and everything we see and know sprang from her great wonder. But we call to her in vain. She comes like the storm at her own will.
Future. Oh, see how fixed in trance he is!
Past. Firm as the loadstone of the world.
Future (seized with the cramp). Oh! oh! I feel myself drawn to his feet. Agony! agony! Save me! save me!
Past. Alas! alas! I have tried all my magic; my wisdom and my arts are nothing to him. Future. You must do something or I shall die and you'll die too, old dotard—don't forget yourself.
Past (sniggers). No fear of that, no fear I shall forget myself.
Future. Oh, all my beauty vanishes!
Past. I have shown him glimpses of misleading wisdom, strange joys, forgotten mysteries. I have given him a taste of praise, of rapture and swift movement.
Future. Of rapture! What do you know of rapture, poor old fool? Leave that to me. If that will win us life, I'll make him feel the keen edge of joy. I'll make him feel the honey in his veins and the loud heartbeats that silence wisdom.
Past. All these are fires he has known, my hands have scattered their ashes many times.
Future. O shrivelled hands, what fire have you to give? It is not withered memory that tempts, nor aching limbs that make men long for life (holds out his own beautiful hands). The magic fire I give shall work new changes on him.
Past. Your fires will be mine before an hour has past; even now they pass into my veins.
Future (in a fury). Old hog! get out of my sight. I hate your dreary lies. I am the source of life; ’tis you must die.
Past (bows mockingly). Resplendent youth, your dreams would die untold if it were not for me. The law is this, it is the law of Time. And you are going where you must, and dreaming once again the fair false dreams I wrote of ages since.
Future. I know your cry, “reiteration” and “recurrence,” your “Ring of Time.” But I defy it! I’ll bring him new dreams. Titanic, Godlike dreams, dreams of power, dreams that he moves the very pulse of earth.
Past. What are your dreams? My hands long since have torn those dreams in fragments.
Future. He has never yet dreamed of conquering the earth, the sea, the air.
Past. Poor child, you are bewildered. I tell you he has been king of air and water and of fire itself; in the past, before this earth was battered into shape, the spirit that now breathes in him was free; it knew no power that could keep it back. The fire was a rapture and the air a whirl of light. No solid earth shut out the quick ecstasy of beings who are now men blinded behind a little veil of flesh—and wondering at their helplessness.
Future. Strange, strange; that was beyond my thought.
Past. You’ll think it yet when we have travelled round the ring of time.
Future. Alas! alas!
Past. Try something simpler.
Future. What can I do?
Past. I have love-songs in my bag here; sing them to him.
Future. Yes, yes, a maid.
Past. A cup of wine.
Both. These are enough.
Past. They’ll set him dreaming and desiring, grasping, fighting, killing, raging to defend his own.
(The Future sings some old poems in braise of love.)
Future. These should soon rouse him from his trance. Past. Now try a Dionysian strain and praise the grape and dance the Bacchic dance.
(They dance and sing until The Present slowly opens his eyes, and they return to their stations on either side of the throne.)
Present. What is this whirl of sense that clouds the serene ecstasy of being, that I knew but now when I cast away the images of thought and pierced my heart to find its secret home? (Dreamily) I stood naked in a dark and bleak eternity and filled it with my exultation.
Past. Master, we wait for you.
Present. Old man, old man, wait on; for I have known the rapture which delights in destroying its very being. I have scattered the broken lights of day and live in a silent place where time and change are dumb.
Past. We have great feasts for you, my master, and kegs of wine from Cyprus.
Present. I do not need to feast, my body is a phantom made of thought. (They shrink back shuddering.) I will not feed it, for it grows and creeps about me holding delight to my eyes and horror to the deep joy that gleams within my heart. (Past weeps.) Do not weep so, but tell me did men of old listen to their own hearts and learn from them what nothing else could tell?
Past. Yes, yes, indeed, dear master, if you will but come away from this dread place I can show you the scripts of the wisest among them.
Present. Bring them here.
Past. I fear there are very few I could bring here. The Central Truth casts a bewilderment upon men's thoughts. Present. Bring what you can.
Past. One short passage from St. Augustine (as he opens his bag). Two or three from the Greeks. One poem from Persia. One inscription from Egypt. Three sentences from Shankârachârya and from the Tao———
Present. Enough, enough; show me the most ancient of them all.
(They become absorbed in a scroll.)
Past. Hush, foolish boy.
Future. I would speak with our master.
Past. Wait then until he chooses to listen to you.
(A knock is heard at the door guarded by The Future. He goes to it and looks out.)
Future (returning). A fair young girl, in great distress, is asking for our master. She says he alone can help her. Present. What is that you say?
Future. A lady, weeping, sir, says you can help her.
Present. What does she need?
Future. She has heard you have achieved the great quest and have found the philosopher's stone. She is saddened by the ebb and flow of life, and seeks to know the mystery of being.
Present. Tell her to search in her own heart.
Future. Sir, she is almost fainting at the door, and hoped you would heal her with a touch.
Present. I must help all that ask me. Bring her in.
Future. She may not enter, sir.
Past. You know, sir, we may admit no one to your presence here.
Present. Then I will go to her.
Future. She lies like a crushed white flower at the door.
Present. Poor child, it is a pity she should fade so soon. I will go to her (half rises), and yet, and yet—
Past. You do well to hesitate, master; will you not rather come to the record room and I will show you how a certain man named Adam lived happily until a woman—
Future. Silence, old scandalmonger.
Present. Enough of this clamour; I will come with you (to Future).
Future. She is a lovely lady, and will give you hours of great joy.
Present (stopping short). Is that your meaning? Away, away, both of you (casts aside the scrolls). Close the great doors and dare to disturb my peace no more.
(He returns to his throne and seats himself as at first. Music is heard outside, and The Past and Future dance a kind of quarrel dance, The Future doing his best to prevent The Past from collecting his scrolls, and The Past preventing The Future from reaching The Present to pluck at his sleeve.)
Future. Why do you spoil my plot? We should have been safe for millions of years if you had not begun your foolish story about Adam.
Past. Young ragamuffin, what do I care? In any case I am safe. My records cannot be blotted out; they are stamped upon the stuff of life, and will recur eternally.
Future. Your records will go with you when our master swallows us.
Past. I'm not so sure of that.
Future. Old monument! Can you not remember how you told me that unless we can persuade him to rejoice in wine and song and women, home and all the rest of it, we ourselves must fade and fade until we die?
Past. The three will become one.
Future. When the three have become one, where are you and I? Philosopher without wisdom, have you no common sense?
Past (blinking at him provokingly). As usual, the Future has to ask questions of the Past.
Past. After all, what does it matter? Your being continually merges into his, and, as a matter of fact, I make my dinner off both of you.
Future. But that is all pretence; we don’t mind a little self-sacrifice by way of pretence. But in reality! no! no! Why it’s downright murder! Our master sleeps too well; even now his trance approaches the state from which there is no return. I feel it in my very bones.
Past. Why did you interrupt me just now when I had him deep in the ancients? Their inspirations can coil like serpents in our hearts; if you had not disturbed us with your foolish wench, he would soon have been beguiled.
Future. I believe in the wench. She’s a great power. What is a bit of fine writing to us when the passions rage?
Past. And where would passions be if men had not fired them with thought, and peopled them with images of joy?
Future. Oh words! words! They are nothing.
Past. A word once flashed across the bosom of the depths, and all the stars of heaven sprang out to listen to it.
Future. That was because the word was full of desire for the stars.
Past. Maybe; but what is a man or woman that they should be desired? It is the dreams and images of poets and singers that have made a mantle of sweet sounds and cast it over them so that their passions may bring them an unearthly joy.
Future. Oh that I might lead her in, that he might see her loveliness!
Past. The wild words of the singers have made you see enchantment in her breath, a thunder-cloud in her hair. He knows, he knows, that she is nothing but a carcase like any other beast.
Future. Horrible old man, away with you! (Pursues and batters the old fellow, who takes refuge on a high place whence he looks down like a gargoyle.) Oh, great master, awake, and save me from this old devourer!
Present. You have but to know yourself as one with me and death can never touch you.
Future. I love you, I love you, but I cannot hold your hand, I cannot know you. I am a delight, a rapture beyond, always beyond———.
Present. I see a strange light trembling round your hair in tender rainbow tints.
Future. Oh master, turn your terrible eyes away. They blaze and burn up all my fancies in their light. I would not die.
Voice outside chants with a terrible wail. I am lost, I am lost. Thousands of years I must wander ’mid phantoms of time.
Future. Listen to the cry of her you will not save. It is the cry of the whole world. It is the cry of the unmeasured hosts of souls. If you would go to them and rule them, the fair soul of earth would lay her head upon your heart and hang her lovely arms about your neck and sing songs of your noble deeds to all things.
Present. There is no need for me. There is within them all a secret shrine of blessedness.
Future. But man is born to make a beautiful thing of Sorrow. He does not care for Happiness.
Present. He can make little beauty till he has burned with the supreme desire, his brief madness can but accomplish brief allayments.
Future. Oh, you will teach great tidings. This one woman saved, means that the world would burn with rapture.
Present. Child! child! know this riddle and ponder it. The supreme desire is to be without the supreme desire. That I have known.
Future (in agony at seeing The Present once more lapse into trance). Master, master, wait, wait till we are old. I am so young.
Present (speaking with a far-off voice). Seek the imperishable while the tides of life are on the flood. Then they can carry you beyond all mortal hope. For those who wait for the dark time of feeble will can only sink and drown.
Future. I have lost hope.
Present. Then give me your hand.
Future. I give it. (As their hands meet he becomes transfigured with joy.) Oh Time! Time! you are slain in the unchanging rapture of Truth.
Past (leaps down with a scream, a wail of wild music is heard). Come away, come away, we shall die, we shall die.
Present (to The Future). The old ways of the changing, world cry to you. Can you master them?
Future. Oh Truth, great virgin, that melts down life and death and gives us them to drink out of your cup!
Past. Who cares for Truth? Come away, come away, or we die. (He drags The Future away and leaves him fainting at the foot of the throne.)
Present. Now are you glad at heart, poor hungerers for harvest, thirsters after life?
Past. Come away from this dreadful place. See, see, great master, how it has killed this child; he was so full of joy and life.
Present. He is a phantom. You are a phantom. Let all phantoms know themselves as phantoms,^and the goal is reached. Past. Is the goal Truth?
Present. She is burned up in Being. The Gods may labour in the fields of Time but I remain. The ten winds may sweep through Space, but the dust returns to its own place.
Past and Future. What is this mystery?
Present. The smallest of the small is the greatest of the great.
Past. What is that smallest thing that is so wonderful? Present. That smallest thing is NOW, for Eternity is found in it.
Future (kneels in a rapture). Oh let me die, and live in you alone!
Present. Where I am there is no Death; it is a phantasy of phantoms.
Past. You are the master in the Place of Being, and Time must be the servant at your gate! (kneels tremblingly).
Present. Where I am there is no Fear. All Life is mine; all possession is a burden; for I see Time as it is and am at Peace. (He gently raises them to their feet.)