Author: Denis Johnson
"Perfection is not the basis of what I'm talking about," says a member of the Cassandra family, which
forms the center of Denis Johnson's plays, Hellhound on My Trail and Shoppers Carried by Escalators
Into the Flames.The character could be speaking for his creator, because human imperfection is one of
Denis Johnson's specialties -- in his critically acclaimed novels, short stories, and nonfiction, and, now, in
two brilliant new plays. These two works present a dramatized field guide to some of the more
dysfunctional and dysphoric inhabitants of the American West: a sexual-misconduct investigator who
misconducts herself sexually; a renegade Jehovah's Witness who supports his splinter Jehovean group
by dealing drugs; the Cassandra Brothers and their father and their grandmother, thrown together at a
family reunion/wedding/melee at their shabby homestead in Ukiah, California.When Shoppers Carried by
Escalators Into the Flames was performed in San Francisco in 2001, the Chronicle said, There's an
enormous appeal in Johnson's bleak-comic vision of a semi-mythic American West. That appeal derives
from the author's perfect vision of imperfection, embodied with such energy and courage in these
marvelous pieces of theatre.
An Exploration of the Colorado RiverMRS. MAY's office: At stage left a large desk and swivel chair,
fronted by a comfortable chair for visitors. Across the space at right, a couch and a large chair separated
by a low table. Looks like a cross between an office and a waiting room.Upstage, a wall with venetian
blinds over a window.Morning outside.Alone in the room, MARIGOLD CASSANDRA sits on the couch.
Late twenties. Business suit.She looks at magazines from a stack on the low table. Tosses one aside,
and it slides off the table onto the floor. Crosses and uncrosses her legs, etc.She opens her purse,
rummages distractedly, Comes up with a bottle of pills. Pause. Unscrews the cap and downs one.
Pause. Reaches in her mouth and takes it out. Pause. Puts it back in her mouth, clamped by her front
teeth.Hunts in her purse again. Finds a little airline liquor bottle and quickly unscrews its cap and washes
down the pill with a swallow.MARIGOLD: Oh. Jesus Christ.Gets a breath spray from her purse and opens
wide and hits her larynx. Finds some gum in her purse. Unwraps and chews it. Tosses the wrapper into
the purse. Stares down into it.Pause. She spits the gum into the purse.She takes another pill, rapidly
repeating the whole process, emptying the tiny jug and tossing it into the purse. And then more
breathspray. More gum. She sighs.Pause.The door opens a crack. A woman peeks in and smiles: MRS.
MAY, late forties, in a black dress with white borders, the senior citizen look. She knocks tentatively and
enters with a slightly hunched, apologetic air -- leaves the door ajar behind her. She looks around, adjusts
the blinds to make more light. Gathers magazines into stacks, picking up the one on the floor. She talks
softly, as if in deference to people working in nearby offices.MRS. MAY: Were you looking at this one?
MARIGOLD: No. Yes. But not now. (Pause.) I didn't expect magazines! (Pause.) Is this a waiting room?
Is there an inner office?MRS. MAY: Oh, this is the inner office. I'll take these old ones home... Unless
you--?MARIGOLD: No. Thanks.MRS. MAY: This one's recent. (Showing it.) How did they get that?
MARIGOLD: Horrible.MRS. MAY: He was right in the fire. Snapping pictures... Look at that. It looks like
Iwo Jima, doesn't it, with the flag, only they're being crushed.Pause. MARIGOLD, looking, gasps in polite
appreciation.MRS. MAY: Carried by escalators into the flames... (Pause.) Did you see the news on TV
when it, after they--MARIGOLD: Horrible. Wasn't it more than eighty--MRS. MAY: They were laid out like
shish kebab in the parking lot... And it was raining. And the steam was rising off the corpses in the
rain.MARIGOLD: I don't remember that.MRS. MAY: Don't you?MARIGOLD: Not -- isn't the sun -- were
these pictures taken that day? Because it seems sunny--MRS. MAY: --it seems sunny--MARIGOLD: It
does.MRS. MAY: I probably misremembered. Every time you turn on the TV. Don't you agree, Ms.
Cassandra? All the corpses blur together. (Pause.) I'm sorry--MARIGOLD: No. I just got startled. My
name -- You knew. I didn't think -- Well, perhaps I should ask: Are you (Pause. MRS. MAY is leaning
close to her.) Do I -- (MARIGOLD...
Denis Johnson is the author of The Name of the World, Already Dead, Jesus' Son, Resuscitation of a
Hanged Man, Fiskadoro, The Stars at Noon, and Angels. His poetry has been collected in the volume
The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly. He is the recipient of a
Lannan Fellowship and a Whiting Writer's Award, among many other honors for his work. He lives in