Here are the first ten pages of my play 'My Pal Hennie'. My protagonist, Solly, is the narrator. I'd like to know if this works.
MY PAL HENNIE
A Play in Three Acts
The action takes place in 1967 in a rundown house in Yeoville, Johannesburg. Upstage right is a small bookcase under a window. There’s also an old couch, a chair, a coffee table and a few rugs. There’s a door that leads outside and upstage left is a passageway to the rest of the house. The stage left area is used to enact various scenes.
Night and the house is in darkness. Someone outside struggles to fit a key into the lock. The door finally opens and Solly enters. He switches on the lights at the wall. He’s a little drunk and wears a creased coat and an ill-fitting pair of trousers. He stumbles and swears then stands still and looks around the room as if he’s not seen it before.
SOLLY: Location, location, location. Ha! (He sits down in the chair and immediately starts coughing. It’s a deep raw cough. He reaches into his coat pocket and produces a cheap half-bottle of sherry. He drinks. The coughing finally subsides.) See, I’ve still got this damn cough. (Shaking his head.) I must have sat out there for hours, the whole blerrie night. In winter it gets so cold. The lady in the chemist gave me some medicine. Said it was good stuff. Told me to be careful ‘cause it’ll make me sleepy. How can I sleep when I’m coughing all the time? Hennie said I should go to the hospital. But I didn’t want to go there. The others just told me to shut up. It was Hennie’s fault they locked me out, you know. Ja, his fault. He drinks. All the time. Meths too. Well, I caught him at it once but there must have been other times. I’m coming home late one night, must have been eleven, half-past and I cut across the empty plot on the corner of, uh, ag, what’s it now? (He pauses.) Grafton. Ja, Grafton and … Voortrekker Street. They’d pulled the house down on the corner. Mind you the people there, they were real pigs. The wife, Marlene, always shouting and screaming. Jeez, the fights they’d have. He’d hit her, the husband, and kick her. Once, he smacked her right off the porch. Then he jumped on her. (he laughs) But she’d always get up even when she was bleeding. She’d chuck something at him, a brick, a bottle. He’d lock her out but that didn’t stop her. No, she’d just kick a hole in the door. (He laughs again and starts to his cough. He drinks from the bottle). They come and took them away. First the two kids, then her and him. Jeez, that was a real couple.
So it’s late and I’m tired. I cut across the corner, cause it’s shorter to my place. Jeez, it was cold. Dark too. Couldn’t see a cat’s arse. Then I hear Hennie down the side lane with those blacks, trying to bum a drink. Shit, I told him to be careful of those okes. They’d kill him quick. When I get there he’s sitting against the fence, drinking from a tin. A tin can with meths. Jeez, I dunno. Anyway, I managed to get him home. The day he arrived he was drunk. Driven through the night from Durban and right outside the house the car breaks down. (he laughs) If you could call it a car.
A hooter sounds and the lights come up stage left to reveal a drunk Hennie standing next to four chairs which represent his car. The bonnet is up.
HENNIE: Solly? Hey, Sol. It’s Hennie. You there? Answer me, man. (He puts his hand through the open car window and hoots again. He’s unsteady on his feet.)
(Solly walks over to Hennie. He stops a few feet from him and they face each other for a while without speaking.)
HENNIE: What took you so long? You deaf? I’ve been hooting, man.
SOLLY: Can’t you knock like everyone else? And keep your voice down the neighbours will complain.
HENNIE: Well that’s some welcome I must say. Fuck the neighbours. It’s me Sol, your brother, Hennie. (Solly doesn’t move. Hennie throws out his arms.) Don’t just stand there, come give me a hug.
SOLLY: (A long pause) You’re drunk.
HENNIE: I’ve just had a couple, man. I’m fine.
SOLLY: You could kill someone driving drunk.
HENNIE: (Waving his hand in the air) How do I look?
SOLLY: Older. Wouldn’t recognize you if we passed in the street.
HENNIE. It’s been eight years. (He advances and hugs Solly. Solly’s arms remain at his side.) You look the same only with less hair and more wrinkles.
SOLLY: You’d better come inside it’s cold.
HENNIE: No, I’ll get the car started first. Now where did I put my toolbox? (He moves to the driver’s door, opens it and reaches inside for the boot catch. Losing his balance, he falls face forward into the car but manages to pull the lever then wriggles back out. Walking to the boot, he opens it and takes out a heavy toolbox. He taps it.) Got everything in here I need to fix the old buggy. (As he moves to the front of the car, he falls over, dropping the box. He tries to get up but can’t. Solly kneels beside him.
SOLLY: I told you you were drunk. Put your arm around my shoulder.
HENNIE. (They struggle for a while and finally Solly gets Hennie to his feet. Hennie smiles stupidly.) Drove all the way from Durban.
SOLLY. What? In this wreck? You kidding me, right?
HENNIE. Ag, I know she’s seen better days but she gets me places. I had some trouble in Harrismith but otherwise… Course, soon as I hit Jo’burg she packs up on me. Hey, you got something to drink? I’m dying of thirst, man.
SOLLY. You’ve had too much already. (Solly pulls a bottle of sherry from his coat pocket and takes a drink to taunt Hennie. Hennie makes a grab for the bottle. Solly pulls his hand away and shakes his head.) Uh, uh.
HENNIE. Come on, man, just a sluk. (Hennie stares at Solly, then breaks into a beaming smile.) Please.
SOLLY. Just one, you’ve got a car to fix. (Hennie nods. Solly twists off the cap and lets Hennie take a drink.) So why you come to Jo’burg? (He screws the cap back on and pockets the bottle.) Why you come to this shithole? Hey?
HENNIE. To see my little brother. It’s been a long time.
SOLLY: (He stares at Hennie and shakes his head) Don’t give me that kak. Why you come here? Hmm?
HENNIE: Change of scenery, that’s all.
SOLLY: (Shakes his head.)
HENNIE: Ag, hell, I lost my storeman’s job. They fired me, okay. Can you believe it? Never missed a day’s work in two years, well, except for the times I was sick. But anyone can get sick. A solid worker that’s me. Still I won’t miss it. They gave me all the shitty jobs. The pay was lousy too. (Hennie opens the toolbox and takes out a screwdriver.) I won’t miss the flats where I stayed either. It was like a slum, man. You should have seen the place. Full of gutter-trash people. Just the other night, in the early hours I hear screaming so I look over the balcony and there’s this chick lying on the pavement, her body all twisted. They say she had an argument with her boyfriend who lived on the fourth floor. He just picked her up, Sol, under her arms (He demonstrates), swung her over the balcony and let her go. Can you believe it? Just dropped her. She landed on her feet. Better if she’d died, I reckon. No, I was going nuts, man. No job, no money. A bad time. A really bad time. (Punches Solly softly on the arm.) It’s always darkest before the morn, hey?
SOLLY: Before the what?
HENNIE: Before the morn. It’s always darkest before the morn. (Getting cross) It’s a saying, man.
SOLLY: Ja, I know but it’s dawn.
SOLLY: It’s not morn, Hennie, its dawn. It’s always darkest before the dawn.
HENNIE: You sure?
SOLLY: Of course I’m sure.
HENNIE: Ag, morn dawn, same difference.
SOLLY: It’s not, man, in the proverb it’s dawn.
HENNIE: Okay, okay, smarty pants, if it makes you feel like a big man. Anyway, I thought I’d check out the work situation here in Jo’burg. I’ve got some good contacts. I’ll get a job just like that, you’ll see. (He clicks his fingers then moves to the bonnet of the car and leans in.)
SOLLY: (Under his breath.) Fat chance. You’re a dronkie. Who’s gonna hire you?
HENNIE: (Looking up.) What did you say?
SOLLY. Just talking to myself.
HENNIE. (Smiling) That’s the first sign of madness, Sol.
SOLLY: Ja, ja.
HENNIE: You know what’s the second sign?
SOLLY: (Not understanding.) The second sign?
HENNIE: (Moving towards Solly.) The second sign of madness. Do you know what it is?
SOLLY: (Shakes his head.) No, what?
HENNIE: Hairs on the palm of your hand…
SOLLY: Ah, bugger off, man.
HENNIE: It’s true. I’m telling you. (Solly shakes his head and after a second or two looks down at his open palm.)
HENNIE: (Laughing and slapping Solly on the back) And the third sign is looking for them. (Solly shakes his head. He doesn’t get it.) It’s a joke, man. Just a joke.
SOLLY: (Solly looks at his hand once more and the penny drops.) Oh, looking for them. I see. Ja, that’s funny.
HENNIE: So how about another sluk of Old Brown?
SOLLY: (Shakes his head.) Right now you need to fix the car.
HENNIE: Okay, okay. Shit, you sound just like my boss. Always telling me what to do. (He moves back to the bonnet and leans in.) Pass me the shifting spanner, the one with the black tape on the handle. (Solly finds the tool and hands it to him.) You were never any good with cars, hey, Sol? Always had your nose stuck in a damn book.
SOLLY. I used to help pa with the Valiant sometimes.
HENNIE. Come and take a look at this baby. (Solly moves to join Hennie.) See, here’s the engine block (Tapping with a screwdriver), and this is the air filter. Down there are the spark plugs. But what’s this, Sol? Hmm? What’s this here?
SOLLY. (Solly peers in) Uh, the carburettor?
HENNIE. The carburettor? Don’t make me laugh. That’s the alternator, man. (Suddenly angry) Why you pretend to know about cars, hey? Who you trying to bullshit? You know fuck all about cars. Think you so clever.
SOLLY. I just said I used to help dad, that’s all. I’m no mechanic.
HENNIE. Why you try to pull the wool over my eyes. You think I’m stupid?
SOLLY. Have another drink. (He pulls out the bottle and offers it to Hennie.)
HENNIE. (Hennie smiles, steps forward and snatches the bottle. He drinks.) Good stuff. (Solly reaches out his hand to take back the bottle. Hennie pulls the bottle away.) I’m thirsty so I’ll just keep it for a while. The two men stare at each other then Hennie turns back to the car, takes another sip and slips the bottle into his pocket. He tinkers for a while and looks up.) I think I’ve found the problem. You get in the front and when I say ‘Go’ turn the ignition on, okay?
(Solly gets into the car. Hennie shouts ‘Go’ and Solly turns the key. The car starts and as Hennie shouts ‘Yes’ and pumps his fist in the air, the lights fade.)
Hennie exits and Solly crosses back and sits on the edge of the couch. The lights come up on him.
SOLLY. Said he needed a place to stay till he got a job. Well what could I say? Tell him to get lost? (He takes a drink from a bottle on the coffee table and moves to the window.) He parked the car up against the wall in the garden. That was eight months ago. Most days he’d check the papers for jobs. Had a couple of interviews too, at least that’s what he said. A storeman job in Berea and a caretaker job at the blind school in Hillbrow. They got someone else, he told me. But any day now, Sol, you’ll see. In the afternoons he’d work on the car. Said we were gonna take a trip. The Garden Route. Just as soon as I’ve rebuilt the engine and tuned her up, Sol, then we’ll take a real holiday. Camp on the beach and sleep under the stars. Maybe stay in a couple of swanky hotels. That was Hennie all right. Big dreamer. (He spots something out of the window and backs away.) Shit, there she is again. D’you see? On her balcony. Shit, there’s no privacy. Who does she think she is, hey? Of course she acts like she’s watering her flowers, but she doesn’t fool me. Not for a second. They all do it, all of them in those flats across the road. What are they staring at, huh? On weekends it’s worse, cause we sit outside on the porch and before you know it they’re all on their balconies looking down at us. Snobs! Blerrie snobs! All of them. It’s funny but it never worried Aunt Lettie. No, she never made a fuss. As Christians we must learn to love our neighbours, Solly. We all have to live together in peace. Went to church every Sunday. Carried her own bible. I’d go too, look after the small kids at the Sunday School. Thirty years, that’s how long she lived in this house. (Pause) She’d just smile at them then close the curtains. No fuss. But when Hennie came to stay for ma’s funeral that was a different story. What are they staring at, hey Sol? They got no right. Then he’d wave his hand like this (He raises a hand with the middle finger straight up and laughs) and they’d disappear back inside so quick. Good riddance, he’d say. She doesn’t even greet me. In the street sometimes in the street I’ve seen her but she walks straight past. Doesn’t say a word, just walks straight past. Who does she think she is, hmm? I’ve had a education. I can read. Ja, I’ve read books. I enjoy a good book. (He picks up two books from the bookcase) See, Bookkeeping Made Simple. And this one, The Mayor Of Casterbridge. Ja, I like a good book. (He peeks out of the window.) Blerrie Snob. (He sits and starts to read. After a few moments he puts the book down.)
Aunt Lettie would read to me every night. Treasure Island. Pew. The Black Spot. Jim Hawkins. Long John Silver. Hey, I loved that book. Straight after my bath, before I got into bed, she’d first check my ears were clean then she’d rub my hair between her fingers to make sure it squeaked. ‘Squeaky hair is clean hair, my boy,’ she’d say. ‘You remember that.’ Then she’d rub me down with a towel so hard my skin would go pink. Later, lying in bed, I’d listen to her soft voice as she read to me and the hairs on my neck would feel tickly and my arms would go all goosey. (A long pause before he leans back and closes his eyes.)
2am. Moonlight shines through the window. Solly is asleep on the couch. He starts coughing and wakes. Sitting up, he drinks from a cup on the coffee table.
Jeez, this damn cough’s killing me. Why didn’t you stop them the night they put me out, Hennie? Too blerrie drunk, that’s why. (He sips from the cup again and looks out the window) Wow, a full moon. (He goes to the window.) So bright it’s like daylight out there. I learnt a poem at school about the moon. Aunt Lettie said maybe one day I’d be an actor cause I was good at learning poems and stuff and saying them out loud. “The moon has a … a face like the clock in the hall; She shines on … on thieves on the garden wall, On streets and fields and … and harbour quays, And birdies asleep in the forks of the trees.” (He laughs.) There was more but I‘ve forgotten. (A long pause as he looks up at the night sky.) When Hennie came back to the house with Leo that night the moon was also full. Cold too. What the hell was he thinking bringing Leo back here? Anyone could see he was, well, funny, you know, like mad in the head.
(The lights fade and come up as a very drunk Hennie flings open the door and enters. His arm is slung over the shoulder of a young man. Leo’s head is shaved and he has dark rings under his wide eyes.)
HENNIE. (To Leo, whispering.) See, I told you the house wasn’t far. (Leo has spotted Solly at the window and backs away) Don’t be afraid. Come in. Come in. (Hennie pulls Leo further into the room.)
SOLLY. What you doing, Hennie? Who the hell’s this?
HENNIE. I thought you’d be asleep. This is Leo. I found him on Nugget Street. He was staring at the cars like he wasn’t there … like a sleepwalker. I had to stop him trying to cross over, he would have got killed for sure. (Hennie steps closer to Solly and whispers) He talks to himself. (Leo looks around the room, his face blank.) Says he’s just come out of TARA.
SOLLY. (Whispering.) TARA? TARA’s a fucking madhouse, man. What you want to bring some mad oke back here for?
HENNIE: Well I couldn’t leave him on the streets could I? He’s got no money, Sol, no belongings, nothing. (Pause) I told him he could stay with us for a while. Okay?
SOLLY: Are you mad? No, he can’t stay here. We dunno who the hell he is. Jeez, what’s wrong with you, Hennie?
HENNIE: Ag, relax, he’s harmless. Let’s have a drink. Leo’s got a half-jack in his pocket. (Solly shakes his head.) Come on, man, have a dop. (to Leo) Hey, Leo where’s that bottle? It’s freezing, let’s have a dop. (Leo smiles blankly as Hennie takes the bottle from his pocket and whispers to Solly.) I think he’s still in shock. They probably hot-wired him in the madhouse. I’ll look after him, Sol. I promise. (He hands Solly the bottle and throws an arm over Solly’s shoulder.) Now have a drink. (Solly stares at Hennie and finally drinks.)
The lights fade. Solly returns to the window and Leo and Hennie move into the darkness of the house.
SOLLY: So we all had a drink and Leo stayed. (He sits on the couch.) He was kind of creepy, if you know what I mean. You could never see into his eyes, they were always half-closed and his face, his face was white, man, as white as … (He smiles) as the full moon. But the skin under his eyes were dark like bruises. Hell, he was a zombie from an old black-and-white movie, man. Must have been the shock treatment. Never spoke for weeks sometimes. He’d just sit at the table and flick beans onto the kitchen wall. But Hennie took good care of him, always together. I kept my distance. Anyway, about two months after he moved in, one afternoon, I see two okes looking over the garden wall at Hennie’s car. The one guy had a neck like a rhino, the other, well, he looked a bouncer, a bodyguard. Chest like a wine barrel, a large flat nose and arms that were huge. But it was his eyes I remember most. Evil eyes, that looked straight through you. What you doing out there? I shouted from the porch. What you want? Come to see Hennie, the big one shouted. We’re friends … from Durban. I’m Joubert, this is Dion. Some friends, I thought, more like a couple of hoods. You’ve got have the wrong place, there’s no one
It's was a big holiday weekend here in the US. It takes awhile, but folks will comment. In the meanwhile, make yourself known, critique the work of others--that's really the key to getting your own work read. Let members get to know you a bit. Be patient.
As for me, I am reluctant to comment on anyone's work. I simply avoid it. I know how to do what I do, but that is pretty much it. All my advice seems to be best taken by myself.
I will, however, read your work and answer your question about whether or not I feel your narrator works. What I think and feel means very little. That said, give me a week or so and I will read and comment to the best of my ability. I am in the middle of 2 huge projects so, again, be patient.
As you were kind enough to pass comment on an old post of mine I feel obligated to return the gesture.
Please bear in mind I have no experience, talent or technical knowledge – so please accept the following in the spirit of ignorance of the craft that it is delivered.
In answer to your main question I get the narrator bit, it does work so far for me but, I am not always clear if Solly is narrating to the audience or talking to himself, this of course may be as you intended.
There are others on this forum better able to discuss all the merits or drawbacks of using a narrator.
Something that has been mentioned to me more than once is to put in a hook early on to engage the audience. Set something up to get them asking questions. You did mention –
The others just told me to shut up. It was Hennie’s fault they locked me out, you know -
in Solly’s first narration and I wondered if this referred to some future event? But you did not elaborate or offer any other teasers. If something important or tragic happens later and Solly’s narrations are leading up to this event then it might be a good idea to have Solly give us some clues at the very beginning and get us thinking.
Two final small points –
I found the casual use of ‘blacks’ a little jarring and wondered if racism might play some significant part later in the play or be referred to again? Otherwise it seemed unnecessary.
The Play is called ‘My Pal Hennie’ yet he is Solly’s brother? Is this explained later?
As I said please feel free to ignore any or all of the above and keep writing!
Stop with the modesty. You have a talent for writing.
Thanks so much for your read and comments - very observant ones too.
I've purposely written the play so that Solly swings between talking to himself (while we listen in) and addressing the audience directly.
The 'hook' you mentioned, I've deliberately kept cryptic. More does come later, much more. Funnily enough, his first spoken line, 'Location, location, location,' also has relevance later. But I take your point about including a few more clues and may well do this. Do you think I'm missing a trick if I don't?
Solly's use of the word 'blacks' may well be jarring, but remember the play is set in Johannesburg in the sixties and that's how Solly would have referred to them. Race is not an issue in the play, but I'm trying to show that Hennie is a real down-and-out by sharing meths, from a tin can, with them.
I think Solly, as the narrator, works very well. It gives us those moments to reflect after any action. It also allows us to get to know people very well. His moments are like soliloquies, so that we go deeper into his thoughts and not just stay with publicly-spoken dialogue.
Yes, as the action gets a bit hectic from time to time, Solly's narration gives the audience time to catch their breath. He also helps the audience to understand more about the characters from his point of view.
Fossil - I like your writing quite a bit, and I like the play. Really want to see where it's going and would love to read the whole thing one of these days.
I do have a couple of strong opinions about what I read, but as with all criticism, grain of salt :)
The narration is well written, and Solly has a really good voice. However, there are times when it seems like you hide behind the narration rather than showing us some of the real action.
When Solly is giving us his backstory, his thoughts, the things that we can't see inside his head, it works very well. Also when you need to compress time between two events that move the story forward.
However, in a couple of key areas, it feels like we should see and hear the conversation.
One is Hennie's bullshitting Solly on the job search. It seems that would make a strong conversation, esp. with your ear for dialogue. You could really ratchet up the conflict and tension between the two.
The second strikes me as a real missed opportunity. At the end of the second scene, when Hennie has talked Solly into having a drink with mad Leo, you skip back to narration, when watching the two of them try to drink and communicate with Leo would probably be very powerful scene. Show us how creepy and quiet Leo is, then go back to Solly to let some time go by and provide some of his internal thoughts about Leo - how he looks like a zombie, must have had shock treatment, etc.
Anyway, I hope that's not too much. I'm hooked on the story, but I would say only tell us by narration what you can't show us in the character's interactions. Opinions worth what you paid. Cheers :)
Thanks so much for your comments. This is exactly the kind of feedback I'm after. I like you're thinking and will make some changes. If you'd like to read more - the play's almost finished - let me know.