Borrowed Feathers

Short Play / Series: the oldest tales of humanity

A new series to complement Altair, in the spirit of Altair.

The oldest tales of mankind are not just stories: they are stories that we can find, barely derived, from one continent to another – stories that are common to all of us, no matter where we come from – and that makes them truly precious, especially in an age where everyone thinks they are so beautiful, unique and original.

The advantages that I see in each of these tales are the following: first of all they are very visual, very pictorial: therefore easy to stage.
Then, each tale is both unique and multiple: they allow each one to find a marvel of its distant past, while noting that this marvel is common to all.
From a theatrical point of view, this means: not staging a tale, but the different variations – which is not really difficult either, these tales are very short, the variations are quite brief – and the major effect on the audience.
And finally, because these are ancient tales, but really ancient tales, found on clay tablets for the most part, they are not “for children” – they are for everyone.
With endings… surprising for us, so used to closed, moral, clear endings.

Since saying so is usually not enough, here is an example.

The version I am talking about comes straight from the ruins of Babylon.
Not all the clay tablets have been found.
Some have been erased. Others were broken. But on the whole, the tale unfolds.

The story takes place in those very, very ancient times, the time when beasts spoke, the time when the gods were on Earth and took care of the affairs of living things.

At that time, the eagle and the snake were close friends.
One, perched high in the tallest tree, fed his eaglets.
The other, curled up at the bottom of the trunk, fed his snakes.

Since saying so is usually not enough, here is an example.

The version I am talking about comes straight from the ruins of Babylon.
Not all the clay tablets have been found.
Some have been erased. Others were broken. But on the whole, the tale unfolds.

The story takes place in those very, very ancient times, the time when beasts spoke, the time when the gods were on Earth and took care of the affairs of living things.

At that time, the eagle and the snake were close friends.
One, perched high in the tallest tree, fed his eaglets.
The other, curled up at the bottom of the trunk, fed his snakes.

The world has never been kind – especially to children. How, when you are alone, can you feed your young and protect them from the voracity of others?
So the eagle and the snake sealed their friendship before the god of justice: when one would go hunting, the other would guard all the young.

It was, at first, such a cute show. The hunter never forgot the young of the other litter, and each brood was overflowing with gifts.

One day, the eagle was very proud of the fact that his chicks had grown up: all of them could fly, their talons were strong, sharp – they didn’t need protection anymore.
When the chubby snake brought up the gifts of the day to the little eagles, the eagle saw nothing but beautiful, tender, fresh flesh.
The eagle became obsessed: eating snake? it must be so tasty. Especially the small ones, the young ones, the tender ones, so tender to his throat… he dreamed about it day and night.

Then necessarily – one day that the snake was hunting …. the eagle melted on the nest of his friend, devoured all the snakes and then took his brood so high and so far that the snake would not find them.

The snake went to throw itself at the feet of the god of justice – who took pity on it.
The god gave him the means of revenge, to capture the eagle, and to throw it, one wing broken, into a pit.
The snake followed the god’s advice, broke the eagle’s wing and threw it into the pit.

Meanwhile, all the gods had learned to hate the men of the city of Kish. Their vengeance was merciless. No more king, no more rich people, no more children: death reigned, plague decimated families, hunger killed others.
Two gods, however, wanted to help these men: they searched the whole earth for a man capable of reigning and bringing reason, heart, goodness and courage back into the hearts of his people.
They found a young man, a shepherd – gave him the crown and the scepter, a beautiful, gentle, calm and wise wife.
But this was not enough for the other gods. Sterility struck the couples – the city would have no offspring.

So the shepherd threw himself at the feet of the god of justice.
Who told him to go and look in a pit, far enough away – in this pit he would find a fettered eagle, with a broken wing.
This eagle would tell him where to find the miraculous plant that would make everyone fruitful.

The shepherd found the eagle. He forgot to ask him for the plant, because the eagle was so painful.
The eagle told his story, lying like a camel thief – he had broken his wing on his way to see the dwellings of the Gods, so high up – so high up that he had not had time to see the seventh gate of the heavens close – which had broken his wing and thrown him into the pit. Impressed, the shepherd asked him if he knew where to find the marvelous plant.
The eagle knew – offered to help the man, if the man would free him and heal his wing.

The man freed the eagle, fixed its broken wing.

You think the eagle will fly away, leaving the man at the bottom of the pit?
Not at all.
The eagle had understood that you shouldn’t think only of yourself – it could be dangerous, after all.
So he told the man how to hold on to his talons – and the two of them flew off to the home of the Gods.

The eagle asked the man what he saw: small rectangles, strange puddles, puddles that became smaller and smaller, and then at one point, the man saw nothing, but nothing at all, below him there was only navy blue, and he was afraid, really really afraid, his hands became clammy, and the eagle was still climbing, still, still a little higher. One hand fell off – the man tried to catch himself, but it was too late, he let go of the other hand.
There was a roar of waves, the ocean was coming at him

The murmur of the waves, the panicked cries of a terrified eagle flying in circles over the water and the waves all saying the same thing: too weak for flight are the borrowed feathers – divine decisions cannot be changed.

The tale ends here – the city wasn’t saved.

Admit it, this is a strange tale – especially because of the ending.

As for the variants, there are in Africa, India, Belarus, Spain, Rhodesia, North America, Georgia – not to mention Greece and the myth of Icarus which comes so many centuries later. Some are more based on the story between the snake and the eagle, others on the story of the man who believes himself capable of what he is incapable of, others on the story of the gods who condemn men – but all have the same background – which would allow for very interesting variations and therefore different shows and yet… not so much.

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