Ringtones

A short play

Notes to the reader: Two separate conversations sometimes run concurrently in this play. What would be obvious on the stage is confusing on the page, so I’ve color-coded certain exchanges: those at stage right between JULIA and TODD in red and those at stage left between BURT and JEROME in blue.

The musical instruments worn by the characters symbolize the distinctive ringtones of cell phones. No actual cell phones are used.

Below, among the credits, are links to sound clips for the song “Honey Bee” and the call of the mourning dove. Sorry, no recording of the rap. I won’t attempt that. If an actor doesn’t like my lyrics or can’t rap them, he can write his own.

Characters:

JULIA, college student, late teens to early twenties. She wears a small pleasant-sounding bell, zill, or musical triangle on a strap over her shoulder; it must not ring irrelevantly but only when deliberately struck. This actor must be able to imitate a mourning dove call on an ocarina.

TODD, same age, wears a ukulele slung behind him on a strap long or elastic enough to allow someone else to play it. This actor must be able to accompany himself on a hand drum as he raps.

BURT, same age, wears a hand drum slung like the ukulele. This actor must be able to play a 3-chord progression on a ukulele while singing pleasantly in tune, and to imitate a mourning dove call on an ocarina.

JEROME, same age, wears an ocarina.

SETTING: A student union or cafeteria. Downstage are two round tables, spaced wide, each with two chairs right and left.

As the lights come up, TODD sits alone at the center-stage side of the stage-right table; at the stage-left table BURT (center) and JEROME (left) share a textbook and work on a literature paper.

JULIA: (Enters stage right carrying a single milkshake with two long straws, sits in the chair across from TODD and sets the milkshake between them.)
This weather! The sun is like a massage.
(She takes a sip.)
Every time someone walks in the door they bring in the breeze and the lilacs with them. How can we even think of going to class?

TODD: Yeah…

“Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,

The bridal of the earth and sky.”

JULIA: Oooh, pretty. Did you write that?

TODD: No. I mean, yeah! That’s one of mine! No, it’s George Herbert. English poet.

JULIA: Welsh.

TODD: Actually, I think you’re right. He was Welsh.

JULIA: “The bridal of the earth and sky.” What a wedding.

TODD: When I walk outside on a day like this, I always think of that poem. It’s a simple image, but so beautiful.

JULIA: You have my undivided attention.

TODD: Aw, I’m sorry. I’ll lay off the English crap.

JULIA: No, I like it! I love poetry. Who doesn’t?

TODD: Well, as a matter of fact a lot of people don’t.

JEROME: So what do you think of the lark as a symbol?

BURT: Hmm?

JEROME: The lark.

“Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate.”

That’s how he feels thinking about his girl. Isn’t that a symbol?

BURT: You asking me? —Well, it starts with “like,” so it’s a simile, isn’t it?

JULIA: You want to hear my favorite poem?

TODD: Sure. (JULIA sits straighter, governs her breathing.)

JEROME: Well, sure it’s a simile, but doesn’t it sort of symbolize happiness? You know… the skylark, break of day, rising up, singing songs, heaven’s gate. (BURT stands up, takes the book and starts toward TODD.) All good feeling stuff. Isn’t that what— Hey, where you going?

BURT: Todd knows about poetry. (Turns away again.)

JULIA: (Recites.)

“I dwell in Possibility—
A fairer House than Prose—”

JEROME: What’s wrong with the lark?

JULIA: (Reciting.)

“More numerous of Windows—”

BURT: (Without looking at either TODD or JULIA, lays book on the floor, picks up TODD’s uke, plays and sings.)

“Honey Bee

Oh marry me

We’ll build our hive”—

TODD: (Turns to BURT, who hands him back his uke.) Hey, Burt! What you doin’?

BURT: (Picks up book.) Chillin’. Got a question.

TODD: Shoot.

BURT: Shakespeare sonnet 29, “When in disgrace—”

TODD: (Recites.)

                “…with fortune and men’s eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state—”

BURT: Yeah, yeah. We have to write a paper about it.

TODD: Oh, it’s all in the consonance. All the action is in the teeth and the lips and the tip of the tongue.

BURT: Cool! The lips and the tongue…

TODD: And the teeth. Say it: “fortune and men’s eyes… beweep my outcast state…”

BURT: “Beweep my outcast state”— Yeah, the teeth and the lips and the tongue.

TODD: Tip of the tongue.

BURT: Teeth and the lips and the tip of the tongue. Thanks. (Goes back to JEROME.)

TODD: No problem. (Turns back to Julia.) Yeah, go on.

JEROME: Okay, let’s get back to this now. Symbols.

BURT: The teeth and the lips and the tip of the tongue.

JEROME: What?

JULIA: I’ll start over.

TODD: No, just go on from there. “More numerous of Windows— Superior—”

JULIA: What, you already know this poem?

TODD: Yeah, Dickinson.

BURT: The teeth and the lips and—

JEROME: I heard that! I still don’t know what you’re talking about.

BURT: Just write it down.

JULIA: Well, never mind, if you already know it.

TODD: No, no! Go on. I like to hear you recite it. You have a beautiful voice.

JULIA: I do?

TODD: Yeah! “Superior— for doors—” Go on.

JULIA: I want to start over.

TODD: Right. From the beginning.

BURT: The poem is all about the teeth and the lips and the tip of the tongue.

JULIA: (Recites.)

“I dwell in Possibility—
A fairer House than Prose—”

JEROME: Alliteration was last week. (Writes in his notes.)

JULIA: (Reciting.)

“More numerous of Windows—”

(TODD stands and crosses toward BURT.)

“Superior—”

Hey! Where are you going?

TODD: Just a second, I gotta help these guys.

BURT: I tell you Todd’s a genius. Trust me.

JEROME: Yeah, but the assignment is to— (Reads) “Find a symbol that illuminates the—”

TODD: (Takes BURT’s drum, sets a rhythm and raps:)

“I’m a blood hound
outta the dog pound, back in my home town
rollin’ around with the top down”–

BURT: (Turns to TODD, who hands him his drum back.) Todd, my man! Thanks for the tip about the tip of the tongue.

TODD: Yeah, but I just thought of something else. You gotta talk about the word “state.”

BURT: “State”?

TODD: Yeah, “state.” He uses it, like, three times.

BURT: So?

TODD: Every time he uses the word it means something a little different.

BURT: Different?

TODD: Yeah. Like state of affairs, state of mind, and state like in “kingdom.” You gotta mention that.

JEROME: Hey, can we get back to this poem?

BURT: (Gestures for JEROME to wait.) Really? That is too cool. State of mind—

TODD: Of affairs, then mind, then kingdom.

BURT: Affairs, mind, kingdom. Got it.

TODD: Good.

BURT: And the tip of the lip—

TODD: The teeth and the lips and the tip of the tongue.

BURT: Got it!

TODD: Later. (Returns to JULIA.)

JEROME: Can we get on with this?

BURT: Oh, we’re rollin’ now. Mind, affairs, kingdom. Okay, write this down. (JEROME obediently gets his pen and a clean page.)

JULIA: What was that all about?

TODD: They’re working on a paper. They needed my help on a poem. Okay, go on.

JULIA: Listen, are you sure you want to hear this?

TODD: Oh, yeah! You make it sound so beautiful. Go ahead. (JULIA sits up and begins psyching herself up to recite again.)

BURT: State of mind, state of affairs, and state like kingdom.

JEROME: (Writing.) “…like… kingdom.” That’s it?

BURT: And the slip of— the tip of the lip and— the…

TODD: (Gently prompting JULIA:)Superior—”

JULIA: I want to start from the beginning again.

TODD: Okay. From the top.

JEROME: “The teeth and the lips and the tip of the tongue.” You said that earlier.

BURT: Good! You took notes.

JEROME: Somebody has to. —We gotta find a symbol.

BURT: Lips and tongues are symbols, aren’t they?

JEROME: Lips and tongues aren’t even in the poem.

BURT: They’re not?

JEROME: Read it. (Shoves the book toward BURT, who starts reading silently.)

JULIA: This is silly.

TODD: No, I’m sorry. I love to hear this poem read by a woman. You have my undivided attention.

JULIA: (Recites.)

“I dwell in Possibility—
A fairer House than Prose—”

(BURT pushes the book aside, stands and walks over to TODD.)

“More numerous—”

BURT: (Picks up the uke, plays and sings.)

“Honey Bee
Oh marry me”—

(TODD ignores BURT and listens intently to JULIA.)

JULIA: (A little louder to be heard over BURT.)

“More numerous of Windows—”

BURT: “We’ll build our hive”—

JULIA: “Superior—for Doors—”

BURT: “In a hollow tree”—

JULIA: “Of Chambers—”

BURT: “Honey Bee”—

JULIA: “—as the Cedars— / Impregnable—”

BURT: “Buzz away with me”—

JULIA: MAKE IT STOP! TODD, WILL YOU PLEASE JUST MAKE IT STOP!

BURT: “To the field of clover”—

TODD: (Turns and takes the uke from BURT. To JULIA:) Sorry. Sorry about that.

JULIA: That’s— Just take care of it.

TODD: Hey, Burt. ‘Tsup?

BURT: ’s chillin’. Know what?

TODD: What?

BURT: I just looked and there aren’t any lips and tongues in that poem.

TODD: What?

BURT: The poem never mentions lips or tongues.

TODD: Well, that’s true.

BURT: Well, you said—

TODD: You know, I bet it doesn’t mention teeth either, does it.

JULIA: SWEET mother of pearl!

BURT: I don’t know. Lemme see. (Goes to other table, gets book and brings it back to TODD.)

(During the following lines, JULIA slowly and gracefully rises, picks up the milkshake and crosses in a wide circle upstage of TODD and BURT, clear around to JEROME. JEROME is still waiting for BURT to return, staring at his notebook with his hands in his pockets, and does not notice as JULIA sets the milkshake down beside him and walks around behind him.)

TODD: Are you finding any teeth in there?

BURT: Not yet.

TODD: No. You’re not. And you won’t find any either, no matter how long you look.

BURT: But you said—

TODD: I know what I said.

BURT: Lips and tongue and tip of—

TODD: The teeth and the lips and the tip of the tongue. I was talking about pronunciation, fool. Do you know what consonance is?

BURT: Ha-ha. “Consonants is.” Consonants ARE b, c, d… f, g—

TODD: “Consonance”: c-o-n-s-o-n-a-n-C-E, not T-S. Do you know what it is?

BURT: No.

TODD: Repetition of consonant sounds.

“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries”….

Listen to that. It’s pronounced in the front of the mouth.

BURT: With the teeth and the lips.

TODD: And the tip of the tongue. Sssssss. Tuh-tuh-tuh. Puh. Tuh.

BURT: Tuh. Puh. Got it.

TODD: Are you sure?

BURT: Puh.

TODD: Yes. Read it now.
(BURT starts toward his chair.)
No, not over there.
(Ushers BURT away from the others.)
Over here. Read it along with me, and feel the words. Feel the words.

(TODD and BURT move upstage right and stand muttering the sonnet inaudibly between them. Meanwhile JULIA with lazy playfulness takes JEROME’s ocarina and plays a mourning dove call. JEROME does not immediately respond. JULIA plays it again. JEROME turns to her and suddenly sits straighter.)

JEROME: Julia.

JULIA: Jerome.

(She hands him the ocarina, moves around and stands beside him. A spot gradually brightens on these two.)

Working on a paper?

JEROME: About a poem.

JULIA: I love poetry.

JEROME: Shakespeare. Sonnet 29.

JULIA: I love Shakespeare.

JEROME: Really?

JULIA: Who doesn’t? (She picks up the milkshake and drifts down center.)

JEROME: A lot of people don’t.

JULIA: I do.

JEROME: I do too.

JULIA: (Sits on the edge of the stage, center. Beckons him with the milkshake.) Come read me some of it.

JEROME: (Gets up and follows her, leaving his notebook.) Oh, I can’t read it that well. (Sits beside her.)

JULIA: (Points a straw at him.) I bet you read beautifully. Read me your favorite part.

JEROME: Oh, he’s got the book over there. (Takes a sip from the indicated straw.)

JULIA: (Sips at the other straw.) I bet you know it by heart.

JEROME: I bet I don’t. —I wish I did.

JULIA: I’ll teach you.

JEROME: Will you?

(TODD and BURT have finished reading. They notice JULIA sitting with JEROME. TODD crosses down to her.)

JULIA: What’s your favorite part?

(TODD squats, takes JULIA’s bell and rings it once, softly. JULIA does not acknowledge it.)

JEROME: About the lark.

JULIA: Mine too. The sestet.

(TODD rings JULIA’s bell once more. Without turning from JEROME she takes the bell from TODD and puts it in her pocket. TODD stands and moves upstage right. All the lights begin slowly to darken, except the spot on JULIA and JEROME.)

JEROME: The what?

(BURT crosses down to JEROME.)

JULIA: The last part of the poem. The best part.

(BURT squats, takes JEROME’s ocarina and plays a mourning dove call. JEROME, never taking his eyes from JULIA, removes the ocarina from BURT’s hands. BURT stands and moves upstage right with TODD. The lights continue to darken. TODD and BURT quietly exit.)

JEROME: Teach me.

JULIA: I want to start from the top, okay?

JEROME: Okay.

JULIA: (Recites.)

“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state…”

JEROME: State…

JULIA: (Recites.)

“…And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts”—

JEROME: That’s it. The sestet.

JULIA: (Nods, and continues reciting.)

                              … “myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate…”

(By now the only light is the spot on JULIA and JEROME.)

JEROME: At heaven’s gate.

JULIA: (Recites.)

“For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”

JEROME: (Long pause.) That was beautiful. —How did you do that?

JULIA: I didn’t. Shakespeare did.

JEROME: I mean, how did you remember it?

JULIA: By the feel of the words in my mouth.

JEROME: …in your mouth.

JULIA: In the front of my mouth.

JEROME: In the lips and the tongue.

JULIA: And the teeth.

(They both sip.)

(Fade to black.)

© 2010 Greg Bryant under the Creative Commons

Works Cited

Bryant, Greg. “Honey Bee.” © 2010 Greg Bryant under the Creative Commons.

Bryant, Greg. “Blood Hound.” © 2010 Greg Bryant under the Creative Commons.

Dickinson, Emily. “I dwell in possibility.” Poem 657. Public domain.

Herbert, George. “Vertue.” Poem 89. Public domain.

Nature, Mother. “Mourning Dove Call.” Public domain.

Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet XXIX.” Public domain. Punctuation and commentary after Booth, Stephen: Shakespeare’s Sonnets, New Haven, CT: Yale Nota Bene, 1977. Print.

Sound files:

“Honey Bee”

© 2010 Greg Bryant under the Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA)

C               F
Honey Bee . . . marry me
      G7                        C
We’ll build our hive . . . in a hollow tree
C                     F
Honey Bee . . . buzz away with me
       C               G7          C
To the field of clover over by the sea
 
C                    F
Honey Bee . . . come play with me
      G7                        C
We’ll teach ourselves . . . entomology
      C                        F
We’ll tell the kids . . . euphemistically
        C                G7         C
How the birds and humans make a family
 
  [BRIDGE:]
  G7                       C
  Pretty soon . . . on our honeymoon
        F                   C           G7
  We’ll sip the wine of the columbine until we swoon

 
    C                            F
Then we’ll come home . . . to our honeycomb
        C             G7            C
If you say to me you will my honey be
 
[repeat BRIDGE to end and TAG:]
       C             G7
If you say to me you will my honey–
C                   G7
Don’t be coy ‘cause it’s not funny–
C             G7            C
Say to me you will my honey be

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About Greg Bryant

I teach writing and literature at Highland Community College in northeast Kansas.
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5 Responses to Ringtones

  1. Julie says:

    Nice. The only phrase that stopped the flow for me was Julia’s exclamation “SWEET mother of pearl.” I guess I don’t hear that one too often.

  2. Greg Bryant says:

    No, that’s one I use to keep from saying something really offensive. I doubt any current 20-year-old would use it. Might need to change it.

  3. Chris Bartak says:

    First off, I really like it. I wish the concept was my own.

    If you want to replace the “Mother of Pearl!” expression, which is maybe a little zany, may I suggest “Oh, for the love of!”. That might convey the same desperation a little more naturally. Or you could go down the literary path with the quote: “What fresh hell is this?”. It’s obscure almost to the point of being an inside joke, since the audience would have to know that Dorothy Parker supposedly first uttered it when her literary thoughts were interrupted by a ringing telephone. On the other hand, its meaning is obvious enough it wouldn’t matter if people didn’t get the joke.

    Nice job on the pacing. The gradual change from the occasional interruption to almost continuous disruption, coupled with the faster exchanges does a nice job of building tension. I certainly empathized with Julia, and was happy to see her finally find someone with whom to share the poem/shake, triumphing over the infernal interruption of the cell phones.

    The discussion of the Sonnet is funny (or is it humorous?). Symbolism? What’s that?

  4. bryon says:

    I agree with Chris: the pacing is perfect. This moves just like it would in real life, interruptions and everything. I recall your telling me about the sonnet and how everything is pronounced in the front of the mouth. This would be great on stage. (The “sweet mother of pearl” is like my own “son of a bear!” which I use in lieu of the more obvious choice. It hasn’t caught on with the younger generation, either.)

  5. Greg Bryant says:

    Okay: I’ve written two irritating songs for the “Ringtones” script — “Honey Bee” and “Blood Hound.” I’ve also changed the proprietary movie theme ocarina phrase to the call of a mourning dove, not barred by copyright as far as I know.

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