Jan Svenungsson

Kathryn Hixson's text from A Commissioned Readymade


"A Brief Indexical History of the United States, 20th c."

a surrealistic play in 10 acts by Kathryn Hixson

The stage is bare except for 3 chairs centrally placed, directly facing the audience. The center chair is a grey metal folding chair, typically used in institutional settings since the 1960's. The chair to its right is a overstuffed easy chair which has seen better days, upholstered with cheap brocade. One arm is draped with a discolored lace doily. The chair on the left is a large brown leather lounge chair, with ottoman, the kind most popular with corporate executives and psychiatrists in the 1980's.
Action on stage is lit evenly from above and from the footlights, fading quickly up and down where indicated.

Each act will consist of 3 elements.
A recorded voice will be heard reciting historical statistics and events. The voice is alternately a booming authoritarian male voice, and a timid elementary aged voice of a child. (Voice)
Slides of artworks will be projected onto a screen, placed directly behind and above the chairs. The projections will be of uniform size, regardless of the relative sizes of the original artworks. (Art)
The characters will offer dialogue and action in costume. (Joyce, Billy, and Robert).



Nineteen O four

The British invaded Tibet.

First use of trenches in the Russo-Japanese War.

Panama Canal Treaty is proclaimed.

Fade up on Art:

"Madame Arthur Fortuni in a Pink Shawl"; Eduard Vuillard; 1904

"Untitled" Pablo Picasso; gouache (blue period female portrait); 1904


New York subway is opened

Great Period of Immigration

Billy, dressed in tightly buttoned overcoat and old-fashioned cap walks out from stage left, glances nervously at the audience and sits stiffly on the edge of the overstuffed chair, gazing at his worn boots.
Robert glides in from stage right, dressed in a sleek aristocratic turn of the century suit. He stands and faces the audience, his hand on the leather chair.

Billy, looking sheepishly over at Robert.

Excuse me, sir, do you have the time?

Robert, ignoring Billy, officiously to the audience.

In 1823, President Monroe declared that the American continents are not open to further colonization or to the extension to this hemisphere of the European system of government!


Trade Unions.

Industrial class becomes political factor.

Strike of Textile workers in Fall River Massachusetts...

Joyce, dressed in bustled, high necked victorian dress, rushes from stage right, hiking her skirt up a bit so that she will not trip on it. She walks hurredly past Robert, and stops abruptly to look at Billy, who is staring at her. She then turns to look at the slides of art, her back to the audience. After a few minutes of looking at one, then the other slide, she rushes again past Billy and exits stage left.


Nineteen O Six, San Francisco earthquake

Nineteen O Eight, the Automobile

Nineteen O Nine, the North Pole is discovered

Nineteen Twelve, the sinking of the Titanic




Nineteen fourteen.

The Period of World War 1.

President issues neutrality proclamation on outbreak of war in Europe.

The Panama Canal is officially opened.

International Harvester pronounced by Courts to be a monopoly in restraint of trade.

Panama Canal is formally opened.

Congress establishes the Glacier National Park in Montana.

Harrison Act regulates the sale of opium and coca leaves and their derivatives.

Lights up.
Robert is standing directly in front of the metal chair, wearing a conservative suit.


The World War brings out the interdependence of International trade. Immediate effects are seen in the closing of the NY Stock Exchange, the vast shipments to Europe, the shutting down of the New England cotton mills, the cessation or curtailment of exports and imports, the hampering of various industries through lack of raw material. The confusion gives place to more promising conditions toward the end of December. Benefits to United States are seen in the increased foreign demand resulting from the war.
Within the years between 1913 and 1918, the United States becomes the financial center of the world, controlling the largest proportion of the gold supply, and becoming the great creditor nation whose products and whose capital alone were capable of satisfying foreign demands.

Fade up Art:

"Seated Nude" Pierre Auguste Renoir, 1914

"The Philosopher's Conquest" Giorgio de Chirico, 1914

Robert calmly exits stage right.


Act 3
Stage lights up.
Joyce, wearing a short fringed dress, long beads, and high heels, is sitting on the arm of the stuffed chair, smoking a cigarette, holding a drink, and conversing in low pleasant tones to Robert, who is sitting with legs crossed on the metal chair, wearing a fashionable suit and smoking a cigar. Billy is sitting on the ottoman, wearing a white shirt with sleeves partially rolled up, dark pants, and is in his stocking feet. He is drinking a beer, and listening intently to a large old radio that has suddenly appeared. (Music optional)


Nineteen twenty four.

The 19th amendment to the constitution abolished sex qualifications for the right to vote.

Labor strikes in railroads, textile mills, and coal mines.

First radio broadcast.

Prohibition of manufacture or sale of alcoholic liquors as beverages from 1920-1933.

Gangster activity.

Death of Lenin.

Teapot Oil Dome scandal exposes big-business fraud and extortion.

Fade up Art:

"Counter Composition" Theo Van Doesburg, 1924


Child Labor amendment to Constitution passed.

Sacco and Vanzetti are convicted of murder in the first degree.

Six are killed in fight between sheriff and his deputies and a group of Ku Klux Klansmen.

Laughter from Joyce and Robert, who have been looking at, pointing to and apparently discussing the Van Doesburg painting. (Audible improvised conversation is optional here.)


American participation in the German reconstruction loan is 110 million dollars.

The President signs a bill which establishes quotas limiting immigration.

More gay laughter from Joyce and Robert.


Act 4
Lights up.
The metal chair sits alone in the middle of the stage.
Robert, Billy, and Joyce, all dressed in dingy overalls, stand in a line directly behind the chair. Robert sits in the chair for a few minutes, gets up and goes to the back of the line. Billy, and then Joyce, repeat this action. They continue this action, stoically, for five minutes.

Fade up on Art:

"Une Semaine de bonté ou les sept elements capitaux (A week of Goodness or the 7 Principal elements)"; Max Ernst, 1934


Nineteen thirty four.

The Great Depression and Roosevelt's New Deal.


Act 5
Lights up
Joyce, in a house frock, is sitting in the metal chair. A sewing machine has appeared in front of it, and she is steadily sewing two strips of cloth together. Billy, dressed like a child, is running around the space, and jumping up on the stuffed chair with a toy airplane held aloft. He is making sounds like "eeeece-kaboom, blat-a tat, pow-pow-pow", using his full capacity to vocalize these sound effects. Billy occasionally disturbs Joyce's work, and she looks at him, annoyed, and evokes his name.
The leather chair is gone.


Nineteen forty-four.

General Eisenhower arrived in London to take over duties as commander of Allied invasion armies.

United States forces invaded Marshall islands.

226 Allied bombers in 8 separate attacks blasted the ancient Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino, Italy. Germans were using it as a lookout post.

Billy is scrambling on top of the stuffed chair.


Billy, get down from there! You'll hurt yourself!


Berlin was bombed for the first time by big US bombers.

US planes bombed Swiss town of Schaffhausen by mistake, killing at least 50 people and wounding 150.

June 6 is D-day.

US Troops held victory parade in Paris.


Billy, stop that! Can't you go play outside?


As a result of the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, the "Big Four", the United States, Great Britain, Russia and China, recommended the creation of an international security organization to be known as The United Nations.

Fade up Art:

"Small Sneerer" Jean Dubuffet, 1944

"Woman with Dog" John Graham, 1944


General Patton's Third Army penetrated Saar Valley.

Allies send more than 5000 planes in attempt to halt Nazi offensive.

Billy runs off stage left, and Joyce comes to the end of the fabric she is sewing. She sits up straight for a second, then slumps back down into the chair.


Act 6
Lights up.
Robert is sitting in the leather chair, reading a magazine, and Billy is sitting on the ottoman, which has been pulled around to the side of the chair, so that Billy can look at what Robert is reading. They both wear brown trousers, white shirts and dark ties. One suit coat is slung over the back of the metal chair.


So you see, Billy, in 1947, President Truman created a new foreign policy. He wanted to help free people to keep (reading from magazine) "their national integrity against movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes, and to support free peoples" - like us, Billy - "who are resisting attempted subjugation by an armed minority or by outside pressure". We gave 17 billion dollars to help Europe after the War. We need to protect our investment.


You're right, Bob!

Joyce enters from stage left, in tight waisted full skirted bright yellow dress.

Robert, looking up at Joyce

You look nice! Dinner ready, yet?

Moving very quickly, Robert puts on his suit coat, and moves to the back of the stuffed chair, putting a hand on the top of the chair. Joyce sits in the chair, arms in her lap, knees together and ankles crossed. Billy kneels down in front of Joyce. The three look out at the audience, totally still, throughout the Voice Over.


Nineteen fifty four.

Polio Vaccine made available.

The hydrogen bomb exceeds all estimates of its power.

The McCarthy Hearings precipitate a "Red Scare" - a routing out of suspected communists that supposedly infiltrated the government. 3000 persons are dismissed from federal employment.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for espionage.

Brown vs Board of Education. Segregation of the races as " separate but equal" is deemed unconstitutional by US Supreme court.

CIA supported military forces invade Guatemala.

The South East Asia Treaty Organization is formed.

Atomic Energy Bill permits private ownership of atomic reactors to produce electrical power and provides for sharing of information with European allies.

Fade up Art;

"Flag" Jasper Johns, 1954


Act 7
Lights up.
The chairs are gone.
As the Voice begins and continues, Joyce, Billy and Robert, slowly and regularly walk in a line from stage left, and stand close together, their backs to the audience. Very slowly they turn clockwise, in unison, until they face the audience. They are all wearing the same costume: a black long-sleeved dress, cut close to the body, but not tight. The hem length is just below the knee. They wear black semi-sheer stockings, black pumps, and black short gloves. A black sheer veil covers their heads, draping to their shoulders.


Nineteen sixty-four.

In his inaugural address, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declares a "War on Poverty".

The US Surgeon general announces proof that cigarette smoking causes lung disease.

The Beatles and the Rolling Stones tour the US.

Bugging in US embassy in Moscow announced by State Department.

Congress passes the Civil Rights Act.

Fade up Art:

"The Air and the Song" Rene Magritte (text: "Ce n'est pas une pipe.") 1964


There are race riots in Harlem, New York and Philadelphia.

The United States is attacked by North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin.

A resolution is passed to give the President power take necessary measures to defend US forces and prevent further aggression in Vietnam.

The Warren commission reports that assassin Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

Joyce, Billy, and Robert slowly walk out stage right.

Act 8
Lights up.
The chairs are in their original positions.
Billy and Joyce enter from stage left, and casually turn the stuffed chair and the metal chair to face each other. Billy sits on the back of the metal chair, his feet on its seat. He is wearing an old t-shirt, with words silkscreened on it that can no longer be deciphered, faded blue-jeans and worn brown suede boots. He has on a wig of long scraggly hair. He gesticulates constantly.
Joyce sits on the stuffed chair, and pulls her legs up under her. She is carrying several paperback books and a small sketchbook, which she opens and doodles on its pages during the conversation. She is wearing a long flowing printed cotton dress, sandals, which she takes off when she sits down, and a nondescript headband around her forehead. She also has long hair, though not as scraggly as Billy's.
Simultaneously, Robert enters from stage right, and turns the leather chair and ottoman to face away from the other two. He is wearing a dark ill-fitting suit, white shirt and dark tie, and carries a dark briefcase. He sits in the leather chair, and opens his briefcase, placing it on the ottoman, and takes out a telephone, a yellow legal pad, a datebook, and a gold plated automatic pencil. He occasionally looks over his shoulder at Billy and Joyce, in a suspicious manner.

Fade up Art:

"Four Triangles with a Circle # 1" Robert Mangold, 1964

"Corps and Mirror II" Jasper Johns, 1964


But Billy, we put a man on the moon!


56,000 killed, Joyce. 300,000 wounded.


We started to save the environment, Billy.


Remember the 4 massacred at Kent State, Joyce.


Billy, we lowered the voting age to 18!
Telephone rings. Robert picks it up, waits a few seconds.


Not to my knowledge. No.
Robert hangs up phone.


Joyce, you know that school bussing only made more apparent the racist condition in our society.


Finally, Billy, we have legalized abortion. The pesticide DDT is now banned, Billy.


Prison riots and terrorist attacks, Joyce.
Telephone rings. Robert picks it up, waits a few seconds.


Not in any way. Absolutely not. No not to my knowledge. No.
Robert hangs up phone.

Joyce, gesturing to the Art

Billy, look at our great artistic heritage!
Telephone rings. Robert picks it up.

Robert, loudly

Actors freeze during Voice Over.


Nineteen seventy four.

President Nixon was accused of impeding the Watergate investigation, participation in a cover up of fraud, graft, and corruption in his Campaign to Re-elect the President. In a televised address on August 8, Nixon resigned.


Act 9
Lights up.
Chairs are in original position.
In brightly colored leotard and tights, Joyce jogs in from stage right and proceeds to do aerobic exercises around the metal chair. She wears a portable cassette player, and bits of music can be heard from the earphones.
In a sleek European-tailored suit, Robert follows from stage right and lounges in the leather chair. He brings with him a wireless telephone, which he repeatedly dials and speaks into. Billy follows from stage right, wearing a black sleeveless t-shirt and black jeans, and carrying a brown shopping bag. He moves the stuffed chair a little to the left, and examines it. He takes out paint and brushes from the bag, and begins to paint on the chair.


Nineteen eighty-four.

Texaco takes over Getty Oil for ten billion dollars.

President Reagan is re-elected,

Robert, into the phone

Yes! Yes! Yes! Do it!


Identification of AIDS virus is announced by federal researchers.

Reagan visits China.

Nicaragua contras are supported by the United States to fight the Sandinistas.

Robert, into the phone.

Absolutely, no problem. The time is now!
Billy turns the chair on its side, steps back to take a look, then paints some more.
Joyce, singing with the music in her ears: "du-u-um, dum de dum, dum, dum..."


Palestinian terrorists kill an old man in a wheel chair on the cruise ship the Achille Lauro.

A TWA airliner is hijacked.

Bruce Springsteen "Born in the USA tour"

Fade up on Art:

"The Order of the Angels" Anselm Kiefer, 1984

Robert, into phone.

We did it!


Act 10
Space is dark, chairs are in original positions.
Fade up on Art, which is only a white rectangle of light.
Joyce, Billy, and Robert can be seen crouching behind the chairs, naked and hiding.
Projected white rectangle fades out to black.
Sounds can be heard of whispering between the actors, and footsteps can be heard of them running swiftly around the space and moving the chairs.
White rectangle fades up.
Actors scamper to hide behind the chairs, now moved closer to the front edge of the stage, and closer to each other.
White rectangle fades out to black.
Sounds are heard of love-making amongst the actors.
White rectangle fades up.
Actors hide behind chairs, stilled.
White rectangle fades out to black.
Sounds are heard of violence between actors. Then, sounds of reconciliation and more love- making.
White rectangle fades up.
Actors are hiding, yet sounds of their loud raucous laughter fill the theatre.

Curtain drops.

The End.

Note from the author. All artworks noted are in the collection of the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago, except Jasper Johns' Flag, 1964. Any other relationship of the content of this play to historical reality will remain mere conjecture.

Kathryn Hixson