The Price of Mahogany

This is a script written for the WriteOn project in conjunction with the National Trust at Wimpole Hall, near Cambridge.  It was home in the 18th century to Lord Hardwicke, Lord Chancellor of England.

In this play, the house is disturbed by what seems to be a strange presence that seems to emanate from the beautiful mahogany table in the main dining room. It is the spirit of Kange, the enslaved African who dies having hewed the tree from which the table was made. His spirit is trapped in the table: only Lord Hardwicke can set it free.

 

SPIRIT:                   Did you once say that men can be enslaved in this land?

HARDWICKE:       Yes, I said that slaves remained slaves even if they came to this land.  I stated the law as it stands.

SPIRIT:                   Look at me, Lord of Law.  Look at me well and answer me this.  Do you see a man before you?  Do you see a brother?

HARDWICKE:       I see a man, yes.

SPIRIT:                   A man as you are?

HARDWICKE:       If you like.

SPIRIT:                   Then how can you say I am not a man?  How can you say I must remain a slave?

HARDWICKE:       Because that is the law and I must know the law and nothing else.

SPIRIT:                   Look into my eyes –

HARDWICKE:       No!  It makes no difference, Kange of the Oyo People.  I have eyes to see only as the law decrees.  And the law decrees that slaves belong to their owners here, in the West Indies or at furthest ends of the earth.

SPIRIT:                   Then you condemn me to bondage.  I can never escape!

HARDWICKE:       I condemn no-one.  You have done me no harm, you have done no harm at all that I know of.  It does not change the law.

SPIRIT:                   You will not set me free?

HARDWICKE:       No.

SPIRIT:                   Then I will not leave you.  I will live in your table.  Every time you sit at it you will see me, staring up at you.  I will never give you rest.  And I will remind you every day that I am there not because I chose it, but because you did.

HARDWICKE:       You’re a fool, Kange of the Oyo.  I can blot you out with a simple tablecloth.

SPIRIT:                   And hide your magnificent mahogany that cost you so dear?  I don’t think so.

HARDWICKE:       What do you hope for?  That I will change my mind?

SPIRIT:                   I will awaken your shame.  I will make you a man.  I will make you do what is right.

HARDWICKE:       Make me a man?  Kange of the Oyo, I am more of a man that you will ever be.  I carry no spear, I have broken no heads, but I know this world and I know the emptiness of words better than you will ever know. You think because I know the price of my mahogany, the price you paid, that I will be overcome with shame? No. I will sit at my table and dine and talk and play cards and all the time I shall know – and I shall not care. Do I put aside my tea or my coffee because of the sufferings of those who pick the leaves and the beans?  Do I put by my sugar bowl because of the slaves on the plantations?  Will I forego my mahogany because of the deaths of those who hewed it?  I will not.  But hear me out, Kange.  And you look me in the eye. Had life’s wheel turned another way and I stood there and you where I stand now, you too would enjoy the fruits of other men’s pain.  When you were a warrior, when you slew your men – did you think of the pain you inflicted, the suffering that lay behind your glory?  Did you not take prisoners?  And did you not make them slaves? So point no fingers, Kange of the Oyo.  I will uphold the law come what may, and if that keeps you in bondage so be it.  Until the law is changed.

SPIRIT:                   Is this how you wish it to be?

HARDWICKE:       My wishes don’t come into it.  I am a servant of the Law.

SPIRIT:                   It is a harsh god, this Law.

HARDWICKE:       It is the creation of men.  There are no harsher gods.  We are both its prisoners, you and I.