A Short One-Act Play based on Linda Pastan’s Poem, “Ethics”

This is a short play I wrote. Educators may freely copy, use, or adapt this play if they wish as long as they include  credit to me as the playwright, my email, and a link to my website or blog:

Author: Rickey E. PIttman, rickeyp@bayou.com

Personal Website
Blog http://southernmissive.booklocker.com/

The Choice: A One-Act Play

Director’s Notes:

See these links for analysis of the poem:
http://www.answers.com/topic/ethics-poem-3   and

This short play is based on Linda Pastan’s poem, “Ethics.” The play begins with the narrator (perhaps the actor who portrays the woman) reading or reciting the poem.

In ethics class so many years ago
our teacher asked this question every fall:
If there were a fire in a museum,
which would you save, a Rembrandt painting
or an old woman who hadn’t many
years left anyhow? Restless on hard chairs
caring little for pictures or old age
we’d opt one year for life, the next for art
and always half-heartedly. Sometimes
the woman borrowed my grandmother’s face
leaving her usual kitchen to wander
some drafty, half imagined museum.
One year, feeling clever, I replied
why not let the woman decide herself?
Linda, the teacher would report, eschews
the burdens of responsibility.
This fall in a real museum I stand
before a real Rembrandt, old woman,
or nearly so, myself. The colors
within this frame are darker than autumn,
darker even than winter—the browns of earth,
though earth’s most radiant elements burn
through the canvas. I know now that woman
and painting and season are almost one
and all beyond saving by children.

(We are in the Masur Art Museum in Monroe, Louisiana. On the set are several hinged flats, on which are hung several Impressionist large canvass paintings. On a small table center stage is a large guest book. Play opens with song, “Starry, Starry Night,” by Don McClean. During the song, the curator is dusting and admiring the various paintings.)


SHERIDAN: The museum curator. Middle-aged. He is an art critic and collector. His work is his life.

WOMAN: An old woman.

MINNIE: The curator’s assistant. She is the new secretary newly hired because of pressure from board. She is a complete idiot and incompetent. Doesn’t know or appreciate the arts.


Scene 1

SHERIDAN: Minnie?  Minnie! Bring me some coffee. It’s time for the museum to open. (He is now holding a painting in his hands.)

(She hurries out to him and hands him cup and saucer. She has a cig in her mouth) Don’t you know that coffee is bad for you? I don’t think I was hired to bring you coffee. (She sets it down and starts going through mail)

SHERIDAN:  (Aside) I didn’t want to hire her at all. She’s the niece of one of the board members. (To Minnie) What is your job description? What were you hired to do?

MINNIE: I’m your secretary. Your administrative assistant.

SHERIDAN: Ridiculous. You can’t even spell that.

MINNIE: I can too! T-H-A-T!  Hmmmph!

(She goes to desk. Phone rings. Curator looks at her. Phone continues ringing.)

SHERIDAN: Would you please answer the phone!

(Minnie answers the phone)

MINNIE: Hello? What do you mean who is this? Who is this? Sheridan? Who is Sheridan?  Yes, this is the museum. Oh, him. Yeah, he’s here. Would you like to speak to him?

(Curator moves to her and tries to take phone. She swats him away and is laughing)

MINNIE: Are you sure? He’s pretty grumpy today. Okay. here he is. (Sticks out tongue)

SHERIDAN: This is Sheridan. Why, yes, I’ll be at the conference. Yes, that is correct. My speech will be about The PreRaphelites and it’s called, “The redheaded models of the PreRaphaelites.” No, my secretary will NOT be coming with me. She said what?  She thought Minneapolis was in Mexico? Well, I think she was joking with you. Must have been, nobody could be that . . . (looks at Minnie. She is doing something goofy, making and throwing airplanes)  Never mind. Yes, I’ll see you.

Minnie, where is my plane ticket?

MINNIE: On your desk somewhere.

(He sorts through papers. Finds plane ticket. Looks at it and gasps. Walks to her, slapping his hand with the paper.)

SHERIDAN: Oh, Minnie . . . This is a one-way ticket.

MINNIE: Yeah. You said to book you a flight to Minneapolis.

SHERIDAN: Did you think I was going to walk back? What did you think I meant? You are a moron!

MINNIE: I hate it when you call me names! I’m going to tell my uncle and he’s going to fire you! (She has meltdown)

(An old woman ambles in, singing. She has a hat on and an umbrella in her, and is dressed in ragged clothes. )

SHERIDAN: Ah, our first visitor of the day! Welcome to the Masur Museum! Would you please sign our guestbook?

WOMAN: Good to meet you, Mr. Masur Museum.  What do you do here?

SHERIDAN: I’m the curator.

WOMAN:  What’s that? An alligator?

SHERIDAN: No curator.

WOMAN: You cure things? Can you cure my arthritis? What’s your name?

SHERIDAN: Sheridan

WOMAN: What kind of name is that? (She looks at Minnie) You must be the manager. I think you need to get rid of Bozo here.

(She strolls around looking at art. She does things like try to draw on painting,)

SHERIDAN: You can’t draw on the paintings. What are you, some kind of Vandal?

(Stops at another painting.)

WOMAN: I want to take this one home to show grandkids.

(Sheridan stands between her and painting.)

SHERIDAN: Please, we mustn’t touch the paintings!  That painting is a Rembrandt. It is worth millions of dollars, a priceless work of art.

WOMAN: You paid too much. Someone cheated you.  What will you give me for this one. (She pulls out painting/drawing with Southpark like figure on it)

SHERIDAN (laughs) Oh, please.  This is the worst piece of art I’ve ever seen.

WOMAN:  My grandson did this. You don’t know a thing about art or grandkids either. I know you from somewhere. (She studies him, snaps fingers)  I know! You were one of those Pittman brats!  I don’t know why the museum would hire you. Kids can’t save art.

(Minnie exits, and then returns in a frantic state)

MINNIE: Fire! Fire! I was smoking in the painting restoration room and I put my cigarette out in this pan of water and the fire started.  I’ve never seen water burn.

SHERIDAN: That was paint thinner, you idiot!

(Minnie runs out screaming)

WOMAN: Don’t you talk to your boss that way! (She starts hitting him with umbrella)

SHERIDAN: Please exit the building now. The building is on fire. (He tries to push her along) Get out! I’ve got to save the Rembrandt!

(The woman falls, starts moaning and can’t get up.)  Help! Help me!

(Sheridan tries to carry both the painting and the woman, but can’t)

WOMAN:  Put down that worthless scribbling and get me out of here.

SHERIDAN: (Aside) If I leave her here, she’ll burn to death. Aren’t we supposed to burn witches? If I help her, the newspaper will say, “Addled curator let’s priceless painting burn in fire to save museum vandal.” The museum will close down and no one will trust me with art again. I know, I’ll tell them she was a terrorist!

WOMAN: Please, help me! What will my grandchildren do without me?

SHERIDAN: (Looks at Rembrandt) Oh . . . She has children. What if this homeless bag lady were my mother? I’ll probably regret this choice (He tosses down the painting and helps her out)

Scene 2

(Narrator announces or parades with sign that reads, Scene Two, Three Months Later)

MINNIE: (Enters) Sherwood, there’s someone to see you.

SHERIDAN: My name is Sheridan. Who is it?

MINNIE: I don’t know but they said they were bored. The last name was Smith I think.

SHERIDAN: Mrs. Smith is the chief board member of the museum, Minnie. Send her in.  (Aside) I’ve never met her.  She is the most generous benefactor the museum has ever had. She’s probably come to fire me for losing the Rembrandt. I should have let that old hag fry in the fire. I saved her life and haven’t heard a word from her.  What will I do?

(A well-dressed lady enters. She holds two paintings. Sheridan falls to his knees)

I’m sorry! She held a gun on me! I had no choice.  I should not have saved that crazy old woman!

WOMAN: What did you say about the woman? (reveals herself or Sheridan recognizes her)

SHERIDAN: (screams) She’s come back from hell.  Maybe it’s her ghost, or her twin sister. There can’t be two of them!

WOMAN: Though you are the oddest curator I’ve ever known, because you saved my life, I have something for you.  Two Rembrandt’s! Actually, for a Pittman, you came out okay. I’m sure glad you weren’t Mama Pittman. She would have let me burn up.

And here’s an early Picasso study if you’d like it.

SHERIDAN: (stutters, babbles) Picasso?

WOMAN: Oh, for land’s sake. Do you have these spells often? Here take them.

(Sheridan and Minnie take the paintings and exit. As they walk, they talk)

MINNIE: This is exciting!  I think I may go to college and become an art major. Sherman, who is Picasso?  Was he a basketball player?

SHERIDAN: I think school is an excellent idea, Minnie. I’ll help you find one that has a good art program.

(Now the old lady is alone.)

WOMAN: I’ve loved and studied art and artists all my life. (She picks up painting) I look at something like this, a beautiful work of art, and I think about the painter’s style, the delicate or harsh strokes of his or her technique, the stories and mysteries the paintings hold, and I realize that art is worth saving. But then, so are people. Even old people.  Sometimes art saves us. Sometimes we must save art.

One thought on “A Short One-Act Play based on Linda Pastan’s Poem, “Ethics”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this with fellow teachers, Rickey…not bad for a Pittman! 🙂

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