Con-Artist

A one-act play by Guy Morton

(Location: Hugo Montmarte’s Lovely Landscape Labyrinth; an ugly, messy shop crammed full of second and third rate oil and watercolour paintings. Nearly all are bush scenes; a few look as though they have been copied from postcards of European scenes; as a matter of fact they have been. Among them stands Hugo Montmarte, a swarthy, well-dressed man. He has an outrageous French accent.

He is thinking of a way to best display his wares. He thinks, arranges, thinks, rearranges, thinks, dusts a few of them, decides he needs to remove some of the paintings in order to give himself some room for the others, so he gathers some up and takes them offstage. He comes back, tries rearranging the ones he has left, is dissatisfied, brings some back, tries rearranging them, but again he is frustrated so he rushes offstage and gets the rest of the removed paintings and deposits them onstage. For a furious two minutes he tries desperately to assemble them all into some sort of order. An alarm rings, a clock strikes nine o’clock. It is time to open. He hurls abuse at the paintings for failing to arrange themselves in an artistic fashion.)

Hugo: You bloody bastards.

(Then he stops and looks round, realising that the audience is there and has heard him. He should not be caught abusing those things he is trying to sell.)

Ah, bonjour, good morning.

I was just saying to mon ami Donald the other day, he is an artist, how art does bring out my passionate nature. Of course one does not always want it to. Sometimes it can be verr embarrassing. I do find that those of us with an eye for the beautiful often have very short fuses, is it not so?

But, personally, I feel it is better to live life’s extremes to the … extreme, so when you are happy you are ver verr happy, and when you are sad, ah … c’est la guerre.

Sometimes art makes me sad. It does for you too n’est ce pas? Look at this one. Does that not make you verr sad?

It is the way that the tree is … drooping.

Ah, art and les objets de; that is what we are all here for is it not? You have come here because you love the art, I am here because I love the art. Without art, what is life? It is what separates man from the beasts and it shows man what kind of beast he is.

Of course, some art does this in a very subtle fashion. Take, for example, the landscape. Here at the Lovely Landscape Labyrinth we love the landscape. It is both restful yet it is full of drama. And the way in which the artist captures it can tell us so verr much about him or her.

(he picks up a painting of a sheep drinking at a waterhole)

Take this one, par example, for instance. Do you see how the sheep has been painted? Does that not suggest something to you? Does it not suggest something about the sheep? And isn’t that sheep just a bit like us? Are we not like that sheep, stooping at the edge of life, trying to drink the last few drops of muddy water, straining it through our teeth to get the dirt out, drinking it desperately to stave off the grim sickle wielder, death? And does that not suggest something to you about the artist himself, who painted such a beautiful allegory? Does it not say something of his mortal concerns; his fear of death, his thirst for life? … but, the water is almost gone – this is an old man and his time is running out: soon there will be no more water …

(he sheds a few small tears)

Even the tears will evaporate. It is so beautiful. It is so sad.

Do you like this one? It is verr reasonably priced I think.

(he puts that one down, picks up another. This one is of a swagman resting under a gum tree)

Ah! C’est si bon! This one? I have so verr many favourite pictures here. This one is verr beautiful too. So restful. Do you see how the artist has used his brushstrokes to create the feel of the bark on the tree? That is the mark of a verr great painter. But do you see in this one too how the artist’s favourite theme is still being explored? In the tree. And in the sleeping figure below it. Do you see what he is saying? Of course, the tree is the tree of life, the great towering life force that sucks us up from the void below and forms us into these little dancing shapes that play on the earth. That is what we are – formed from all the stuff stored deep down in the earth. We come out of the earth and live on it for a while, but then, the earth takes us back. Do you see the man lying here? He has fallen, like a leaf, to the ground. Do you see? He is a leaf; spent and useless to the tree he falls off and lies rotting on the ground. And do you see how he has changed? When he was a new leaf he was pink and tender. Now he has grown hard and instead of pink he is brown. How truly this artist sees the lives of men!

Do you want to buy this one? Non? Pourquoi non? Ah, we all have different tastes, n’est ce pas? I am sure I can find something here which will appeal to even you. Something less … lyrical … perhaps? Ah, here we are.

(he pulls out a painting of the Eiffel Tower)

La Tour Eiffel. It does make me so homesick to see it. As a little boy I would love to race my sisters up the stairs to the top. Of course, they do not let you go to the top any more because of all the people who went there to jump off. Still, it is a verr lovely place, a lovely thing. It is a verr lovely picture of a verr lovely thing. The frame too is lovely, don’t you think? This painting is a lovely example of what I call l’art representationelle. This means that it is trying to capture exactly the essence of its subject, in this case the Eiffel Tower. I think it is very successful too. Look at these strong lines. That is the steel girders bending up to the sky. And look here how the artist has accurately captured all these little girders that go all the way up to the top. He has even put in some people – oh! one of them is waving to us! – do you see that? That is truly remarkable. Remarkable. This is a remarkable painting by a great artist! I can let you have it for only two hundred and fifty dollars. It will be worth very much more than that in less than half of no time. It is a very good investment. It would look lovely over your fireplace at home I am sure.

You do not want it? You are sure?

I do not believe it. You are having my leg?

Okay, you are pleasing yourself.

(he puts painting down. he turns away and starts rearranging his pictures)

If you will excuse me, I am sorry I have work to do.

(he dusts, etc. his irritation builds…he finds amongst his pictures a framed sign saying “Why not put it on Bankcard?”. He places this on an easel facing the audience, pointedly…he dusts…his irritation breaks forth)

Look!

(he calms himself. He has in his hand a particularly lurid landscape)

I really do have a lot to do so if you don’t mind … I am expecting some real customers at any moment.

Customer: (from audience, she has been there all the time) How much do you want for that one?

Hugo: This one?

Customer: Yes.

Hugo: Ah, let me see, oh yes, this one is by the famous Australian artist Norman Brinsdley. It is a lovely painting.

Customer: How much is it?

Hugo: It is a bush scene with trees. The light in it is particularly good I think.

Customer: How much?

Hugo: It would be a lovely investment.

(he exchanges glances with the customer)

I could let it go for just two hundred dollars.

(she gets out of her seat and comes onstage…she puts on a pair of glasses and studies the painting)

Hugo: You will find it rewards close scrutiny with increased enjoyment.

Customer: (surveying it in silence) I’m sure I will. Who did you say painted this?

Hugo: His name is Norman Brinsdley and he is a great Australian artist.

Customer: Oh?

Hugo: He is a personal friend.

Customer: How interesting. Yes, I suppose you meet a lot of interesting people when you run a gallery.

Hugo: It is true.

Customer: Do you do gift wrapping by the way?

Hugo: Certainly. Would madame like me to wrap this one?

Customer: No no. Not that one. I was after something a little more … collectable. By someone I’ve heard of. Someone famous. You see, I want a nice little painting I can give my little grandson. Call it my gift of culture.

Hugo: Madame has come to the right place.

Customer: A family heirloom for the coming generations.

Hugo: An ideé veritable madame.

Customer: Yes. By buying one of these paintings I hope to awaken in my grandson a love of artistic things. I trust it’s not a vain hope.

Hugo: Madame’s little grandson will cherish it I am sure.

Customer: Well I don’t know about that. It’ll be an uphill battle that’s for sure, especially with that nong of a father he’s got. Do you know, all he ever talks about is spare parts for his Holden? “I’m gonna pick up me new gasket ring today … Cripes I hope I can still get them bits for me carbie … I thought I might get blue door handles next time, you know to match the carpet?” And I don’t believe that they’ve ever taken little Roger to the art gallery.

Hugo: That is terrible!

Customer: Yes, and he’s five this December! No, there’s not nearly enough respect for the arts in this country.

Hugo: Madame has a lovely country.

Customer: Oh it’s not my country. No. it’s barren; a spiritual wasteland I’m afraid, populated by shallow and mean spirited people preoccupied with analysing their dubious heritage. How much did you say this was?

Hugo: Two hundred and fifty dollars.

Customer: That’s highway robbery! Who do you think you are? Ned Kelly? Dear me! What else have you got here.

(she looks at some others)

No, it’s not a country that’s kind to the sensitive soul, I’m afraid. Look at our poor Prime Minister. What about this one?

(It is a painting of a rosella, copied from a sauce bottle)

Hugo: It is a picture of a bird.

Customer: I can see that. Can you tell me who painted it?.

Hugo: Ah, let me see, ah, oh yes, that one is a Boyd.

Customer: Yes, I know, what I wanted to know was who painted it?

Hugo: No no no, one of the famous Boyd brothers did it.

Customer: Oh?

Hugo: Yes, that one was done by Garry. I was actually there when he painted it. It was a lovely day. We had a picnic. It is a lovely picture too, non?

Customer: I was just wondering why none of these pictures appear to be signed by the artist.

Hugo: Ah … they are signed on the back. It is the latest thing. They are all doing it.

Customer: I can’t see any signature.

Hugo: Of course not. It is underneath the backing paper.

Customer: How do I know it’s there if I can’t see it?

Hugo: Does madam believe in God?

Customer: What’s that got to do with it?

Hugo: We cannot see God, yet many believe he exists.

Customer: I’ll believe in him when I see him.

Hugo: There are a great many other mysteries madam. One must have faith madam.

Customer: That’s all very well, but it doesn’t help me find out who painted these pictures, does it?

Hugo: Madam can ask me.

Customer: How do I know you’re not telling me it’s by some famous artist when it’s really been done by some nobody?

Hugo: Every famous artist was once a nobody.

Customer: Yes alright, but you know what I mean.

Hugo: Madam can trust me.

Customer: But I only have your word on that.

Hugo: Very well. I will have the artist telephone you and confirm that the work is his.

Customer: But anyone could make a call like that, even you.

Hugo: Surely you would pick my accent, madame.

Customer: Let’s find Garry Boyd in the phone book. We can ring him now.

Hugo: No no you cannot do that….his number is not listed. He will ring you later on.

Customer: I’m going out later. Besides, you should have it, you are a personal friend, after all.

Hugo: I did have it … let me see… ah here it is. (he writes it on a piece of paper)

Customer: I’m going to ring him.

Hugo: There is a phone box around the corner.

Customer: Can’t I use your phone?

Hugo: That is not a phone, madame, that is a pop-art sculpture!

Customer: Oh! Silly me! I’ll be back in a minute.

(she goes out.) (Hugo paces and smokes a cigarette) (The phone rings)

Hugo: (he speaks with broad Australian accent)

Yep. Yep. Yep. Have a nice day.

(he hangs up quickly, pulls phone plug out and stashes phone away.) (Customer returns)

Hugo: Now you are happy?

Customer: Yes thank you.

Hugo: Bon! Alors … Now can I interest you in that lovely Boyd?

Customer: Let me see what else you’ve got here.

(she flips through a few until she comes across one of Ned Kelly)

Hugo: That is a Nolan.

Customer: Oh? Really? This is a Sidney Nolan?

Hugo: No. It is a John Nolan, actually. Sidney is his cousin.

Customer: Oh.

(flips through more) (there is one on the wall which she suddenly spies)

Customer: I like that one.

Hugo: Madame?

Customer: The one of the man ploughing the field.

Hugo: Oh, yes madame.

Customer: Can you tell me a bit about it?

Hugo: It is a very sensual work I think madame.

Customer: Do you think so?

Hugo: Oh yes, the admiration of such a work indicates a verr passionate nature. In it the artist explores the nature of the sexual union between man and woman through his metaphor of man ploughing the earth, his mother and his whore. The artist sees this act as a way of uniting man’s spirit with the beast within, symbolised by the ox. The result of this unification of the spirit and the body, and of man and woman, is the fertile field where all manner of crops can be sown and will grow. It is a work of great spirit and of great depth. It flatters you, madame, to choose such a painting.

Customer: I like the colours in it.

Hugo: A superb eye for couleur as well!

Customer: How much is it?

(she rummages in bag)

Hugo: Let me see.

(Poor Tom from King Lear appears and scratches at the window)

Customer: Who is that?

Hugo: Why, it is a beggar. I will let him in so that he may warm himself.

(Poor Tom pushes past Hugo and into the shop)

Poor Tom: Frateretto calls me; and tells me Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness – Pray innocent, and beware the foul fiend.

Hugo: Ah…pardon?

Poor Tom: Child Rowland to the dark tower came, His word was still, – Fie, Foe, and Fum, I smell the blood of a British man.

Hugo: But I am French.

Poor Tom: The foul fiend bites my back. Through the sharp hawthorn the cold wind blows – Hum! go to thy bed and warm thee.

Hugo: It is not my bedtime.

Customer: I think he wants money.

Hugo: Do you think so, Madame? But I do not have any to give him!

Poor Tom: Who gives anything to poor Tom? whom the foul fiend hath led through fire and through flame, through ford and whirlpool, o’er bog and quagmire; that hath laid knives under his pillow, and halters in his pew; set ratsbane by his porridge; made him proud of heart, to ride on a bay trotting horse over four-inched bridges, to course his own shadow for a traitor. Bless thy five wits! Tom’s a-cold.

Customer: (Moves closer to inspect him)

Poor Tom: Away! the foul fiend follows me! Do poor Tom some charity whom the foul fiend vexes; there could I have him now – and there – and there and there again, and there.

Hugo: (aside) What shall we do?

Customer: I have some money.

Hugo: Oh no, madame. I could not allow it.

Poor Tom: Look where he stands and glares! – Wantest thou eyes at trial madam?

(sings) Come o’er the bourn, Bessy, to me, -

The foul fiend haunts poor Tom in the voice of a nightingale. Hopdance cries in Tom’s belly for two white herring. Croak not, black angel; I have no food for thee.

Hugo: (aside) How much have you got?

Customer: Three hundred in cash, and my cheque book.

Hugo: Should we write him a cheque too? Just to be on the safe side.

(to Poor Tom)

What name shall we put on the cheque?

Poor Tom: Poor Tom. A serving man, proud in heart and mind; that curled my hair; wore gloves in my cap; served the lust of my mistress’s heart, and did the act of darkness with her; swore as many oaths as I spake words, and broke them in the sweet face of heaven: one that slept in the contriving of lust, and waked to do it: wine loved I deeply, dice dearly; and in women out-paramoured the Turk: false of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth,

(the cheque and cash get handed over)

wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey. Let not the creaking of shoes nor the rustling of silks betray thy poor heart to woman: keep thy foot out of brothels, thy hand out of plackets, thy pen from lenders books and defy the foul fiend. – Still through the hawthorn blows the cold wind: says suum, mun, nonny. Dolphin my boy, boy, sessa! let him trot by.

(PT has gone) (Normality slowly returns)

Hugo: Now… where are we? Ah yes, the ploughed field.

Customer: Yes.

Hugo: You know, my blood stirs as I think of those fresh moist furrows in the earth, and of the stiff

Customer: He was a funny chap wasn’t he?

Hugo: He is gone now madame, let us consider him no further. The stiff formalism of the fence around the field suggests something to me of the artist’s contempt for modern society I think. He comments here on the rigid constraints put on a man and a woman to only make love when they are married to each other. But look at the trees growing on the other side of the fence; great big pines rising up from the undergrowth. Is it not true that the lover outside the marriage is more exciting than the lover within it?

Customer: I have heard it said.

Hugo: Well the pines are like big willied lovers, standing ready to reclaim the ploughed field and scatter their own seed upon it. They are symbols of fertility…

Customer: I thought the field was supposed to be the symbol of fertility.

Hugo: Ah, yes, well so it is. Only it is symbolic of fertility within marriage and the pine tree is symbolic of it outside marriage.

Customer: Surely fertility is the same, either inside or outside marriage. Then why is it represented twice? Why didn’t the artist stick one big tree in the middle of the field and have done with it.

Hugo: A most provocative suggestion madame. I shall suggest it to him.

Customer: He could then have painted some sheep grazing at the base of it and they could have symbolised his testicles. And their little droppings could have symbolised sperm, fertilising the earth.

Hugo: Oh, I do not think …

Customer: And the farmer’s wife, coming towards them with a knife could have symbolised the artist’s fear of castration.

Hugo: Oh, no, madame …

Customer: And the loggers moving in to chop down the tree could have symbolised the artist’s envy of the large penis.

Hugo: I do not have…

Customer: A large penis?

Hugo: (trapped) No. The painting madame.

Customer: Yes?

Hugo: You would like to buy it madame?

Customer: No I don’t think so. Now that you’ve explained it to me I’m not sure that I like it.

Hugo: I can do you a very special price for it.

Customer: And of course I gave all my money to that Tom fellow.

Hugo: It would be a lovely investment.

Customer: No I think it’s a bit earthy for me.

Hugo: I can let you have it for fifty dollars.

Customer: Oh no, you can’t sell it for fifty dollars.

Hugo: Yes I can madame.

Customer: The artist might get cross with you.

Hugo: The artist will not be cross madame.

Customer: Are you sure?

Hugo: I am certain.

Customer: Well I must admit to being tempted.

Hugo: Go on madame. Look at the lovely colours… I think madame must have it.

Customer: But madame has no money left.

Hugo: Madame can put it on Bankcard.

Customer: Madame does not have one.

Hugo: She has a little money, surely?

Customer: Not enough.

Hugo: Go to the bank. I will hold onto the painting for you.

Customer: That’s very kind of you but …

Hugo: “The Ploughman” by Constantine Aristedes. Oh it is a fine work madame.

Customer: Constantine Aristedes?

Hugo: He is a little known artist but he is one of my most prolific painters. One day he will be known as the greatest Australian landscape artist ever. He is already a master of his art, is he not? Is not his work formidable?

Customer: Oh, I don’t know much about these things.

Hugo: But madame knows all she needs to know. Madam can see with her own eyes.

Customer: Yes but I’m no judge.

Hugo: Madame is the only judge!

Customer: Oh don’t be silly.

Hugo: Oh madame! The artist paints for his audience, not for his critics. You saw this painting and you liked it. You said you liked the colours. Madame must trust in what she thinks, and in what she likes.

Customer: But it might be rubbish for all I know.

Hugo: No no madame, it is not rubbish.

Customer: And anyway, I only liked it before you told me that it was really all about sex.

Hugo: No madame, it is not necessarily about sex. I just made that up. I thought it might make you like it more.

Customer: What was that?

Hugo: I said that I made up my interpretation of the painting’s subject matter because I thought that it might allow you to appreciate it more fully.

Customer: You made it up?

Hugo: I made a creative interpretation madame. I was trying to show you the depths in the work.

Customer: You were trying to pull the wool over my eyes, you mean. Saying it was about one thing when it was really about something else.

Hugo: Madame has my apologies.

Customer: Well I hardly think that’s good enough. I feel like a silly goose now.

Hugo: But madame still likes the painting.

Customer: It’s alright I suppose.

Hugo: It is still a lovely painting. Madame would still like to buy it. It is only fifty dollars!

Customer: No, I don’t think so.

Hugo: Please madame, buy the painting.

Customer: No.

Hugo: Please madame.

Customer: No I really can’t afford it.

Hugo: Please madame.

(she shakes her head)

For forty dollars.

Customer: No.

Hugo: Thirty.

Customer: I couldn’t.

Hugo: Please take it madame, with my compliments.

Customer: (going to the door) No.

Hugo: To recompense you for the money you gave the beggar.

Customer: You don’t need to do that.

Hugo: I want you to have it madame.

Customer: No.

Hugo: Please madame. Please take it.

Customer: I don’t want it!

(she exits) (Hugo collapses in a heap)

Hugo: (slowly recovering)

I cannot even give them away.

(his accent slowly begins to vaporise)

I am not a very good salesman.

(to the painting)

Are you so very bad that no-one wants you?

(he starts tidying the shop)

What about the rest of you? What is your excuse?

What is my excuse?

I am not a good salesman.

Why, that is not so bad.

It is not so bad to be a bad salesman.

(to the pictures)

But to be bad pictures, that is quite something else.

You are not so bad.

No, you are good pictures.

I know. You are good pictures.

Do you see, mesdames et messieurs, the contents of my shop? It is full of great works. The human spirit has been squeezed dry by their creation. They stand here, mute but immutable; silent evidence; the fingerprints of the human soul. You can see it in every stroke. The soul is the work’s shadow. It is set in the hardened paint like the figures frozen at Pompeii, or the silhouettes of those vaporised at Hiroshima.

What price shall I put on them?

I am afraid you do not think they are worth very much. But do you see? They are all symbols of the grand illusion: that we can create our own immortality. Isn’t that an illusion we have all wished to believe in?

Did you see these paintings?

(he sets some up that have been stacked together)

If I don’t sell something today I’ll be in trouble. I won’t be able to pay my rent.

Do you like this one? I think it’s one of my best.

We all have creative souls, don’t we? We create, we procreate, we recreate; we can’t help it – we are too afraid of dying to stand still. Too afraid of being forgotten. When the bomb comes we want to leave our silhouette on the ground. We want people who come after us to say “Oh look, there was a human being here once.”

Look at this one.

(it is a painting of the tree Burke and Wills carved their initials into)

Even destruction is a form of creation. That’s why we have come up with such fancy ways of destroying ourselves. It is a creative pursuit like any other.

I am not very original. I am smoking myself to death.

(he gets out a portrait of himself)

A portrait of the artist.

As a middle-aged man.

I strain my eyes to see something more.

Nothing is revealed.

Disappointed.

Ashamed.

Don’t my paintings reveal me?

Isn’t there a life there, rich and full?

I did them all; can’t you see me there?

A portrait of the artist

Constantine Aristedes -

A fly caught in amber -

A fake.

(Poor Tom, looking quite normal now, appears and taps at the window. He gives Hugo the “thumbs up” and waves the money the customer gave him. Hugo moves to the door to let him in as the lights go down.)

Con-Artist © Guy Morton. Any enquiries regarding the use of this work (or other feedback about it) should be directed to my email address

Con-Artist

Guy Morton

Kew East, Australia

  • Artist
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Artist's Description

It’s a one-act play about art!

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