As some regular visitors to our blog will know, it’s been our practice over recent years to have an advent calendar of biblical art throughout the month of December. This year, as we are all off travelling in December, a daily post seemed impractical. So instead, we will take the opportunity to share some of our TheoRel student work with you throughout the month, betwixt and between our globe-trotting adventures.
To get us off to a good start, let me offer you this short play, ‘Jonathan and Absalom’, penned by Prior McRae as part of his assignment work for a course I taught this semester on I and II Samuel. Prior has just finished his BA at the University of Auckland, majoring in English and Latin. As well as being a stellar student, he is also a massively talented actor and writer, and hopes to continue dedicating his time to these pursuits in the future. In fact, he directed and starred in ‘Jonathan and Absalom’ at last week’s ‘You) Hear Me?‘ art and theatre event held in Auckland.
The play choreographs an encounter between two vital characters in I and II Samuel – Jonathan and Absalom – who actually never get to meet in the biblical text. What unfolds is a fascinating insight into their emotions and inner worlds, highlighting in particular the complexities of their relationship with David – Absalom’s father and Jonathan’s beloved. So read on, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Jonathan and Absalom
By Prior Tadhg McRae
We open on a dry, rocky plateau high in the mountains of Israel. Jonathan is sitting under an olive tree. After a while Absalom walks in looking confused. He sees Jonathan.
JONATHAN: (Looking up and smiling.) Hello.
ABSALOM: (Warily.) Hi. Who are you?
JONATHAN: No one important. You’re his son aren’t you?
ABSALOM: No. (Pause.) Yes. Maybe. A bit. So? Why?
JONATHAN: (Smiles.) No reason. You just look like him.
ABSALOM: No I don’t.
JONATHAN: Fair enough, I’m sure you know him better than me.
ABSALOM: You know my father?
JONATHAN: Once. We were very close.
ABSALOM: I’ve never seen you before.
JONATHAN: It was a long time ago.
ABSALOM: What are you doing here?
JONATHAN: The same thing as you.
ABSALOM: What do you mean? Where are we? What is this place?
JONATHAN: Do you really not know?
ABSALOM: I –
Absalom looks around.
JONATHAN: It’s OK. You’ll get used to it.
ABSALOM: Have you been here for a long time?
ABSALOM: How did you get here?
JONATHAN: The same way as you.
ABSALOM: I don’t remember.
JONATHAN: (Gently.) Don’t worry. It will come back to you.
ABSALOM: (Suddenly suspicious.) How do you know him?
JONATHAN: We were young men together. He knew my father. My father – he cared a lot about David.
ABSALOM: Him and all the other sheep.
JONATHAN: He was different then.
ABSALOM: (Snorts.) Yeah, I’m sure.
JONATHAN: Don’t judge him too harshly. It isn’t easy being a King.
ABSALOM: I don’t think it would be that fucking hard.
JONATHAN: And I’m sure your dad would have loved to have seen you try.
ABSALOM: Like shit. He was too concerned with his own guilt to even notice. Everything I wanted I had to carve out of the world with my own hands.
JONATHAN: And you did it well.
ABSALOM: Not well enough, apparently. I was good, but I could have been brilliant. All it would have taken was his support.
JONATHAN: David was never very good at giving himself to others.
ABSALOM: Not the people he should have anyway.
JONATHAN: That’s not entirely his fault, though. People always wanted more from him than he could provide.
ABSALOM: Even you?
JONATHAN: I – (He stops) I don’t know. I could never figure out exactly how he saw me.
ABSALOM: I don’t think he sees other people at all.
JONATHAN: I don’t think he even sees himself.
ABSALOM: Not such a great attribute for a King.
JONATHAN: There are worse.
ABSALOM: Like what?
JONATHAN: Not being able to make decisions.
ABSALOM: I’m not sure he was so great at that either.
JONATHAN: You never met Saul.
ABSALOM: That was the guy who had it in for him wasn’t it? He couldn’t accept David was going to be a better King.
JONATHAN: Can anyone accept their own replacement? And Saul didn’t hate David. He loved him.
ABSALOM: Surprise surprise. So why did he try to kill him?
JONATHAN: To want to kill someone you’ve got to feel very strongly about them don’t you?
ABSALOM: I don’t know.
JONATHAN: I think you do.
ABSALOM: I never killed anyone out of love.
JONATHAN: Are you sure?
ABSALOM: I loved Tamar. I hated Amnon.
JONATHAN: Still, what if the person you loved and the person you hated were the same? What would you do then?
ABSALOM: That doesn’t even make sense.
JONATHAN: I don’t think sense was ever really Saul’s strong point.
ABSALOM: Did you know him well?
JONATHAN: In a manner of speaking.
ABSALOM: What was up with him?
JONATHAN: God. Being King. Being young, ignorant and innocent. Being weak. Being sensitive. I don’t know. He was a victim of his circumstances. He did some terrible things, but he wasn’t a terrible person.
ABSALOM: I don’t know. Is that possible? Was he really a good person?
JONATHAN: He may not have ended up that way, but there was nothing wrong with him when he started.
ABSALOM: When was that?
JONATHAN: You may not believe this, but he started in much the same way as your father.
ABSALOM: What, an arrogant little prick with a slingshot and a God complex?
JONATHAN: Well maybe not. But he was just a kid, like David, with no delusions of grandeur (Absalom snorts) no delusions of grandeur. Just a farm boy from a village who wasn’t asking anything more from the world than that it wouldn’t ask anything of him.
ABSALOM: That’s never a safe thing to ask.
JONATHAN: No it isn’t. But Saul was never very good at knowing the right thing to ask. He was a man plagued by a need for answers he never received.
ABSALOM: That sounds awful.
JONATHAN: It was. But so was he, in many ways. Although I don’t blame him for it.
ABSALOM: Do you blame anyone? I mean, sorry, but you seem pretty much like you just excuse everyone.
JONATHAN: I never excuse anyone. But I do try to be honest. There are reasons for everything.
ABSALOM: That’s easy to say.
JONATHAN: No it isn’t.
ABSALOM: How can you say people do things for a reason. Saul was a terrible King. He killed people just because they scared him.
JONATHAN: It’s never a good idea to scare a King. People are liable to do anything when they’re scared.
ABSALOM: Not me. I never killed anyone without a reason.
JONATHAN: Yes, well, forgive me but you weren’t around for very long were you?
ABSALOM: That’s not my fault.
JONATHAN: It never is.
ABSALOM: David killed me. I scared him. He scared Saul and now Saul’s dead and he’s King. I scared him and now I’m dead and he’s still King and I’m dead. I’m dead and I’ll never be King. Oh god.
Absalom starts to panic. Jonathan gets up and puts his hands on his shoulders.
JONATHAN: You didn’t scare David. And David didn’t kill you. Joab killed you. Joab was the one who was afraid.
ABSALOM: It doesn’t matter.
JONATHAN: It does.
ABSALOM: David let me die.
JONATHAN: David was proud of you. David wanted you to live. He wanted you to overthrow him.
ABSALOM: So why am I here!
JONATHAN: Because darkness lurks in unseen corners. We can’t always predict where it is or where it will come from or when. There are things we can’t provide for. Sometimes things just happen. It’s not your fault. And it’s not David’s.
ABSALOM: Why are you defending him?
JONATHAN: I’m not. I’m just saying that people aren’t magic. There are only so many mistakes we can stop ourselves making.
ABSALOM: He was a shitty King. And a shitty father.
JONATHAN: He was a good friend.
ABSALOM: I bet he abandoned you too.
JONATHAN: No, he didn’t. He never abandoned me. He just couldn’t help me in the end.
ABSALOM: Why not?
JONATHAN: He just had to be somewhere else.
JONATHAN: It doesn’t matter.
ABSALOM: It does.
JONATHAN: Why do you care so much?
ABSALOM: Why do you think?
JONATHAN: What happened to me wasn’t David’s fault.
ABSALOM: I think I’d like to make my own mind up about that.
JONATHAN: I died in a battle. So did a lot of other people.
ABSALOM: And every one of them has a story to tell. Right now I want to know yours.
JONATHAN: Well, there was a war. Essentially. I mean, people don’t call it that but that’s what it was. And it isn’t over. I don’t think it will ever end. But at this point there was a battle. A final battle. The King died. Saul died. He killed himself.
JONATHAN: What else could he have done? He had failed. His life was over. His army had lost, his Kingdom had collapsed, and his sons were dead.
ABSALOM: I’m not asking about Saul, I’m asking about you. How did you die.
JONATHAN: I –
JONATHAN: It was just a stab wound. I was run through by a sword. I was a soldier. I was fighting, I lost. I died.
ABSALOM: And David was nowhere in sight.
JONATHAN: Yeah, well, he couldn’t be.
ABSALOM: Who are you?
ABSALOM: And who’s that? How do you know David so well?
JONATHAN: I grew up with him, I told you.
ABSALOM: That doesn’t make sense. David grew up as a weird harp playing soldier on the inside of Saul’s household.
JONATHAN: Yes, well, that’s where I was.
JONATHAN: I was inside that household. I was next to Saul. I am the son of a King just as you are.
ABSALOM: You’re Saul’s son?
ABSALOM: And you and David grew up side by side, right next to the King.
JONATHAN: It may have looked as if I was beside him, but everyone knew I was beneath him. All of us were. Even Saul. That whole Kingdom was just waiting in his shadow.
ABSALOM: You sound so dramatic.
JONATHAN: It was dramatic. It was devastating. He destroyed my father. But only because my father was too weak to handle him. That’s the thing about David. He causes people to destroy themselves.
ABSALOM: That’s why Saul killed himself.
JONATHAN: He killed himself because he had come to the end of the road. But he had destroyed himself far before that.
ABSALOM: I’m sick of this. Tell me why we’re here.
JONATHAN: We died.
ABSALOM: So does everyone. I don’t see anyone else behind that fucking olive tree.
JONATHAN: Why are you so certain that I have all the answers?
ABSALOM: Oh, well, I’m sorry, maybe it’s BECAUSE YOU ACT LIKE YOU HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS.
JONATHAN: I have social anxiety. I’m just trying to stay calm.
ABSALOM: Well maybe it’s time you freaked out a little! I freak out all the time.
JONATHAN: And look where it’s got you! On a little mountain top with me for all eternity. Congratulations.
ABSALOM: You’re one to talk! You just sit here moping about David without ever getting to the fucking point.
JONATHAN: And just what would that be, exactly, Mr I’m So Mature Suddenly.
ABSALOM: That you’re in love with David!
JONATHAN: EVERYONE’S IN LOVE WITH DAVID. We COVERED this!
ABSALOM: Not like you.
JONATHAN: All right! So I was in love with David. I fell in love with the man who took the throne, the Kingdom and the love of my father out of my hands. I gave up everything to protect and serve a man who, when it finally counted, wasn’t there. A man who was off by himself, off saving himself, off being David the Annointed One, while I died. I died. I died and he was doing something else.
ABSALOM: He was doing something else while I was hanging from a tree by my hair and his right hand man pushed sticks into my heart.
JONATHAN: Why are we here?
ABSALOM: Did David love you back?
JONATHAN: I’ve thought about it for a very long time, and I still don’t know –
ABSALOM: – what love is?
JONATHAN: I know what love is. I’m not sure he does.
ABSALOM: For what it’s worth, I think he probably did.
JONATHAN: Thanks. But there’s no way you could possibly know that.
ABSALOM: I know. But I just feel like it’s true. I can’t explain it.
JONATHAN: Well I know he loved you.
ABSALOM: It doesn’t mean very much. What good is love if you never show it to the people you love?
JONATHAN: Once I might have disagreed with you but now I don’t know. It hasn’t done me much good at all.
They fall silent. Absalom goes to the edge of the plateau and looks out. There is a sheer drop for miles but the view is beautiful. Jonathan walks over and stands next to him.
ABSALOM: I feel restless. (Pause.) Is there anything to do here?
JONATHAN: Not really.
ABSALOM: Don’t you get bored?
JONATHAN: (Shrugs.) Yeah.
ABSALOM: Jesus. Have you ever thought about escaping?
JONATHAN: Actually I have.
JONATHAN: It’s funny that you straight away leaped to ‘escaping’ rather than just ‘leaving’.
ABSALOM: I – hmm. I don’t know why.
JONATHAN: Well, I felt the same way when I first arrived here. I wasn’t sure why but I just felt certain I wasn’t allowed to walk away. I did try it, obviously, but it never worked.
ABSALOM: What happened?
JONATHAN: No matter what direction I walked in I always ended up coming back here.
ABSALOM: That can’t be right.
JONATHAN: It’s true.
ABSALOM: You must be able to get out.
JONATHAN: Oh right, I’m sorry, I must have just been trying it wrong for the last 20 years.
ABSALOM: You’ve been here 20 years?
JONATHAN: Yes. Well – I – I don’t know. It’s different here. I don’t feel like I’ve actually aged at all.
ABSALOM: You look the same age as me.
JONATHAN: I do not.
ABSALOM: You do.
JONATHAN: I look much more mature than you.
ABSALOM: Oh really? So mature you can’t figure out how to walk in a straight line?
JONATHAN: It’s not as easy as it sounds.
ABSALOM: Fine. I’ll try it myself. At least one of us will be able to get out of here.
JONATHAN: Go ahead.
ABSALOM: I will.
JONATHAN: Do it.
ABSALOM: I’m doing it.
Absalom walks determinedly away, stops, changes direction and walks out of sight. Jonathan watches him leave. After a while he goes and sits under the tree again. He puts his head in his hands.
After a few minutes Absalom appears again, still marching confidently. He stops as he realises he has come back to the clearing again. Jonathan looks up.
ABSALOM: I don’t understand.
JONATHAN: I told you.
ABSALOM: This doesn’t make sense.
JONATHAN: Tell it to someone else.
ABSALOM: (Starting to get upset.) THERE ISN’T ANYONE ELSE. It’s just me and you!
JONATHAN: AND UNTIL YOU ARRIVED IT WAS JUST ME. I was alone. I’ve always been alone. I –
Jonathan stops, choked.
JONATHAN: No one ever stays. I’m the only one who was always there. Saul was never there. He didn’t know how to be. David was always flitting around everywhere. He didn’t care. I was there. I was always there. I tried to hold everything together I tried to be there. To be where I was needed. But no one was there for me. I don’t know how it all went wrong. I did everything I could. I don’t – I can’t – why am I here? I don’t think I deserved what happened to me.
Jonathan starts to cry. Absalom stands, shocked.
JONATHAN: Why couldn’t David just love me? Why couldn’t he just be there for me? What was so fucking wrong with me? OH GOD I DON’T UNDERSTAND.
Jonathan stands in the centre of the plateau and tilts his head to the sky.
JONATHAN: TALK TO ME YOU CUNT! What – am I still too unimportant? Saul and David yes – sure – why not? But Jonathan? Oh no, no, I don’t need to talk to him. He doesn’t matter, there’s nothing special about him! Well maybe I need someone to talk to! Maybe I need you to help me? I don’t understand! I don’t understand! What did I do wrong? Why didn’t the people I needed to help me extend their hands? WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? COME ON GOD TALK TO ME COME ON! YOU’VE PUT ME HERE, YOU’VE LEFT ME HERE, 2O FUCKING YEARS I’VE SAT HERE LIKE A PATIENT FUCKING PUPPET NOW I WANT ANSWERS. I WANT TO KNOW. What happened to me? What happened to Saul? Why did you choose David over us? What was so special about him? Why were his crimes forgivable but not ours? I don’t understand. It doesn’t make sense. I can forgive anyone anything, but I can’t forgive you for this.
Jonathan slumps to the ground. He rests his head on his arms. Absalom stares at him, stricken. The sky has clouded over. There is a crash of thunder overhead. Absalom stares at the sky. Jonathan doesn’t move. There is a moment of utter stillness.
Absalom opens his mouth to speak before but he can say anything rain starts to fall. Jonathan lifts his head. They both stand there getting soaked. Jonathan starts to laugh.
JONATHAN: He always does this.
Still laughing, he gets to his feet. Absalom stares at him, clearly unsure of what is happening.
JONATHAN: Don’t worry, I get it now. He thinks this is an answer. He thinks all we need is a ‘sign’, but really he just doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t have any answers. Ha. God, we’re all such fools. Scrabbling around for his approval, thinking we’re all part of some higher plan. He’s just a confused, aging old dupe in the sky. He doesn’t understand life any better than us. (To the heavens) It’s not enough old man! I don’t believe in your stories. Nothing happens for a reason. There is no plan. And there is nothing keeping me here.
Jonathan walks over to the olive tree and places his palm on it gently, in goodbye.
ABSALOM: Are you…What are you doing?
JONATHAN: I’m leaving.
JONATHAN: Absalom, I have been sitting here for 20 years because I believed there was a reason for me to be here. When God turned his back on my father we all thought there must be a higher meaning. Some cosmic explanation that we just couldn’t see. When he anointed David and stuck by him through worse than…through anything, we thought there must just be something God could see that we couldn’t. But there wasn’t. Life is just like that. It doesn’t make sense, it isn’t fair, it just is. God can’t make it make sense. God doesn’t control things, he can’t even fix them.
Jonathan looks past the olive tree, the opposite side of the mountain from where Absalom came in. He makes a step towards it.
ABSALOM: (In a strangled voice) Wait!
Jonathan turns to him.
ABSALOM: (Controlling himself) Wait – don’t leave me here. Not yet.
JONATHAN: You can come with me.
ABSALOM: No, I can’t. We came here alone, we have to leave alone. But anyway, I can’t leave yet. I’m not ready. I’m not like you. I’ve never believed in God. The only thing I’ve ever believed in is the world I see before me and my own ability to take what I need from it. I can’t just follow you out.
JONATHAN: No, you’re right.
ABSALOM: I need to know why I’m here.
JONATHAN: That’s why you’re here.
ABSALOM: There must be another reason.
JONATHAN: There isn’t.
ABSALOM: I have to know that for myself. I can wait.
JONATHAN: I understand. I just hope you don’t have to wait as long as I did.
ABSALOM: Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t think many people do.
Jonathan laughs. He walks over and they hug. As they have been talking, the rain has petered out. Now it stops.
JONATHAN: Goodbye then.
ABSALOM: I hope you find what you’re looking for.
JONATHAN: I already have.
He turns to go, then stops.
JONATHAN: David is just a man, Absalom.
ABSALOM: What? I know.
JONATHAN: Just a man. He does not hold the key to our souls. Our fates are our own, they aren’t plot-points in ‘The David Story’. We are people just the same as him, with our own stories and our own minds. He is an incredible person, but that’s all he is. Don’t give him more power than he is capable of wielding. He didn’t break you, and he isn’t capable of fixing you. Don’t give him your soul. If you do you might never get it back.
Absalom stares at him, his face inscrutable.
JONATHAN: Goodbye Absalom. I’m so grateful we got to meet at last.
Jonathan lifts a hand in farewell, which Absalom returns and this time he doesn’t stop as he walks assuredly away past the Olive tree and out of sight.
Absalom stares after him for a while. Then he goes to the edge of the plateau and sits down. There is silence. Eventually he speaks.
ABSALOM: I’m sorry Tamar. (He stops. There is a long pause. He wrestles with something deeply emotional.) I’m sorry I never really helped you. (Pause). I didn’t kill Amnon for you. But it wasn’t for the reasons everyone said it was, I promise. I killed him because I couldn’t live with the fact that I had failed to protect the ones I loved. I thought if I could avenge you I could save you. But I had already lost you. I couldn’t accept it. And that…That is a real failing. (He stops and sighs.) I’m sorry Amnon. I’m not sorry I killed you, I’m just sorry I did it for the wrong reasons.
I’m sorry David. I’m sorry I blamed you. And I’m sorry I cared so much about what you thought. You weren’t a perfect father, in many ways you weren’t even a good father. But you didn’t kill me. I’m not like you. I don’t take the subtle route. If I believe in something I do it, even if it isn’t the safest or the cleverest way to do it. I won’t hide in the shadows. I won’t compromise just because things might end badly. I refused to live safely – why was it so hard for me to accept that I didn’t live for very long? At least I lived honestly. At least I lived vibrantly. Jonathan was different again, but he lived honestly too. We may be the ones who ended up here in death, but you, David, you’ve been trapped here your entire life. Or somewhere very similar. You couldn’t ever see past yourself. And now you’re alone. You’re alone even though you’ve had people throwing themselves at you your entire life. You will die soon, and I don’t know whether you will even notice. And I don’t know where you’ll go then but it won’t be like this. There won’t be any way out of that place. Oh god. Why couldn’t you use the power you had to help yourself? Why did you let yourself get so closed off? Oh well. (He sighs again and rubs his face). It doesn’t matter now. I’m done thinking about you. I can’t help you. I lived my life how I wanted to and I have nothing to regret. Thank you Jonathan. You’re a far more powerful man than my father. But I think you know that now. Maybe I’ll see you again someday.
Absalom wipes his eyes and laughs. He stands up and steps to the very edge of the cliff. The sky is clear again now, and is just starting to turn gold from the setting sun. Absalom stares into the sunset and opens his arms wide. It appears as if he is about to jump but at the last moment he stops and crouches down. He grips the edge of the cliff in both hands and swings himself over the side. Then, confidently, he starts to climb down.