Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Friday, February 10, 2012

White King's Pawn

I just finished writing my first new play since I left Michigan in 2007. The need to write another play must have been growing in me for some time, since it took only a few days into my new, reduced work schedule to churn it out.

I've been working on the play for some time, organizing and preparing my thoughts, writing outlines, setting up a Scrivener template for it. Then today I sat down and started a new Scrivener document and just started writing it. Four hours later — with only a short break — I finished it. It's 17 pages long.

I don't know if it's any good. I don't know if it's worth working further on. I don't know if it will ever be worth submitting. But it's been growing in me since December and it just burst out somehow.

It's a play about a chess game, called "White Queen's Pawn." I got the idea when I started taking chess up again in December. I bought a book at a used bookstore called "Chess Basics" and started working through the lessons on Benny's new chessboard. Then I bought another book called "Great Short Games of the Chess Masters" and started working through those.

I am definitely not a natural at chess. Most of the time I don't understand the games I'm acting out. But there's something satisfying about re-enacting a chess game played in Ostend in 1906 or Vienna in 1872 or Riga in 1937.

I was particularly struck by the second game in the book, which introduced a game played in Kaschau in 1893. In this game, the White King's Pawn advanced across the entire chessboard and was a key actor in the amazing finish. The game was so dramatic I played it several times, then showed it to Benny, who nodded politely and went back to his Madden Playstation game.

I couldn't stop thinking about the game, however, and found myself wondering what it would be like to see this game from the little pawn's point of view, the same little pawn who miraculously made it across the board through so many perils and was present at the dramatic finish. I played the game once more and took notes as if I were the pawn: who I was threatening, who was threatening me, what pieces were around me, who was protecting me, who I was protecting.

But it wasn't until I sat down today that I felt ready to actually do it. I approached the script in a very systematic way, letting the natural drama of the game be my plot. Suddenly the characters appeared: the brave little pawn, the brooding king, the sweet queen, the pious bishop and glory-seeking knight, the cunning enemy pawns. The little pawn was like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, advancing bravely into the dark forest following her own brick road to fulfill her wish. I tried to create a narrative trajectory that began a naive little pawn starting her first game and ending ... well ending in a very different place.

I don't know what I'm trying to say with this play -- I've put it away and I can't bear to look at it right now -- but I think the script talks about courage and persistence and ultimately, forgiveness. The Bishop, who started out as a smug strawman for the other pieces to make fun of, turned out to be a vital figure, providing some moral heft to the play.

Perhaps, in the end, this play was about choice: both the chess players and the pieces. For in this play, the chess pieces can influence the game, there's a special, invisible connection between the player and the pieces. A piece can force the player to move impulsively before the player has a chance to think it through, or it can refuse to move, forcing the player to change his or her mind and find another way, possibly to the ruin of all.

For each step the Pawn takes, she must decide to take it. Sometimes she moves from a dangerous square to a protected one. But sometimes she must leave a protected square and forge ahead all alone. At one point she moves from a safe square to a very dangerous one, but she chooses to do it for the good of her comrades, to find that the square was safe after all.

Pawns, by their very definition, are not supposed to have a choice. Their purpose is to be used and sacrificed. But in my play, the pawn has turned the tables and her choices determined the fate of the game.

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