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Captain Cully

By Peter S. Beagle

Reader’s Theater Edition #38

Adapted for reader’s theater (or readers theatre) by Aaron Shepard, from Peter S. Beagle’s book The Last Unicorn, Viking, New York, 1968


For more reader’s theater, visit Aaron Shepard’s RT Page at
www.aaronshep.com/rt

Story copyright © 1968 Peter S. Beagle. Script copyright © 1993, 2005 Aaron Shepard. Produced by permission of Peter S. Beagle. Scripts in this series are free and may be copied, shared, and performed for any noncommercial purpose, except they may not be posted online without permission.

PREVIEW: A magician on a quest is waylaid by a band of not-quite-legendary outlaws.

GENRE: Fantasy
CULTURE: English (medieval)
THEME: Idealism
READERS: 8 or more
READER AGES: 14 and up
LENGTH: 16 minutes

ROLES: Narrators 1 & 2, Schmendrick, Captain Cully, Jack Jingly, Molly Grue, Willie Gentle, Dick Fancy, (Other Outlaws)

NOTES: Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn is no doubt the most beloved unicorn story ever written. This excerpt, though, is less about unicorns than about another traditional figure—Robin Hood. The author has an official Web site at www.peterbeagle.com, and his books are available both there and from Conlan Press, www.conlanpress.com. The “Child collection,” published as English and Scottish Ballads and including many about Robin Hood, was the work of the nineteenth-century British scholar Francis James Child. For best effect, place NARRATOR 1 at far left, and NARRATOR 2 at far right, as seen from the audience.


Book cover: Stories on StageNARRATOR 1:  All that Schmendrick the Magician later remembered of his wild ride with the outlaws—riding, as he was, face down across a saddlebow—was the wind, the saddle’s edge, and the laughter of the jingling giant who held the reins. Bushes and branches raked his face, and owls hooted in his ears.

NARRATOR 2:  At last, the horses slowed to a trot, then to a walk. Sullen voices murmured somewhere ahead. Then Schmendrick’s cheek felt firelight, and he looked up.

NARRATOR 1:  They had halted in a small clearing where another ten or twelve men sat around a campfire, fretting and grumbling.

NARRATOR 2:  A freckled, red-haired man, dressed in somewhat richer rags than the rest, strode forward and called to the giant.

CAPTAIN CULLY:  Well, Jack, who is it you bring us—comrade, or captive? (calling over his shoulder) Add some more water to the soup, love. There’s company.

JACK JINGLY:  I don’t know what he is, myself.

NARRATOR 1:  . . . began Jack, when a thin thorn of a woman, with a pale, bony face and fierce, tawny eyes, pushed through the ring of men.

MOLLY GRUE:  I’ll not have it, Cully! The soup’s no thicker than sweat, as it is! And who’s this long lout?

NARRATOR 2:  She inspected Schmendrick as though he were something she had found sticking to the sole of her shoes.

MOLLY GRUE:  I don’t like the look of him. Slit his wizard!

NARRATOR 1:  She had only meant to say either “weasand” or “gizzard,” but the coincidence trailed down Schmendrick’s spine like wet seaweed.

NARRATOR 2:  He slid off Jack Jingly’s horse and swirled his cloak with both hands until it billowed feebly.

SCHMENDRICK:  (to CULLY) And are you truly the famous Captain Cully of the greenwood, boldest of the bold, and freest of the free?

NARRATOR 1:  A few of the outlaws snickered, and the woman groaned.

MOLLY GRUE:  I knew it! Gut him, Cully, from gills to guilt, before he does you, the way the last one did.

CAPTAIN CULLY:  (bowing proudly to SCHMENDRICK) That am I. (reciting in verse) “He who hunts me for my head shall find a fearful foe. But he who seeks me as a friend may find me friend enow.” (normally again) How do you come here, sir?

SCHMENDRICK:  On my stomach, and unintentionally—but in friendship, nonetheless. Though your leman doubts it. (nods at MOLLY)

MOLLY GRUE:  (spits on ground in contempt)

CAPTAIN CULLY:  (grins, lays an arm across MOLLY’s shoulders, then to SCHMENDRICK) Ah, that’s only the way of Molly Grue. She guards me better than I do myself. I am generous and easy, to the point of extravagance, perhaps. “An open hand to all fugitives from tyranny”—that’s my motto. It is only natural that Molly should become suspicious, pinched, dour, prematurely old, even a touch tyrannical. The bright balloon needs the knot at one end, eh, Molly? But she’s a good heart, a good heart.

MOLLY GRUE:  (shrugging his arm off, stepping away) Hmph!

CAPTAIN CULLY:  You are welcome here, sir sorcerer. Come to the fire and tell us your tale. How do they speak of me in your country? What have you heard of dashing Captain Cully and his band of freemen? (brings SCHMENDRICK to fire)

NARRATOR 2:  Actually, Schmendrick had never heard of Captain Cully before that very evening. But he had a good grounding in Anglo-Saxon folklore, and he knew the type.

SCHMENDRICK:  (warming at the fire) I have heard that you are the friend of the helpless and the enemy of the mighty, and that you and your merry men lead a joyous life in the forest, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. I know the tale of how you and Jack Jingly cracked one another’s crowns with quarterstaves, and became blood brothers thereby. And how you saved your Molly from marriage to the rich old man her father had chosen for her. And of course, there was a certain wicked king . . . .

CAPTAIN CULLY:  Haggard, rot and ruin him! Aye, there’s not one here but’s been done wrong by old King Haggard—driven from his rightful land, robbed of his rank and rents, skinned out of his patrimony. They live only for revenge—mark you, magician!—and one day Haggard will pay such a reckoning—

NARRATOR 1:  A score of shaggy shadows hissed assent, but Molly Grue’s laughter fell like hail, rattling and stinging.

MOLLY GRUE:  (mocking) Mayhap he will. But it won’t be to such chattering cravens he’ll pay it. His castle rots and totters more each day, and his men are too old to stand up in armor, but he’ll rule forever, for all Captain Cully dares.

NARRATOR 2:  Schmendrick raised an eyebrow, and Cully flushed radish-red.

CAPTAIN CULLY:  (mumbling to SCHMENDRICK) You must understand, King Haggard has this bull—

MOLLY GRUE:  (hooting) Ah, the Red Bull, the Red Bull! I tell you what, Cully. After all these years in the wood with you, I’ve come to think the bull’s nothing but the pet name you give your own cowardice. If I hear that fable once more, I’ll go and down old Haggard myself, and know you for a—

CAPTAIN CULLY:  (roaring at MOLLY) Enough! Not before strangers!

NARRATOR 1:  He tugged at his sword, and Molly opened her arms to it, still laughing. Around the fire, greasy hands twiddled dagger hilts, and longbows seemed to string themselves.

NARRATOR 2:  Schmendrick spoke up, seeking to salvage Cully’s sinking vanity.

SCHMENDRICK:  They recite a ballad of you in my country. I forget just how it goes. . . .

CAPTAIN CULLY:  (spins to face him) Which one?

SCHMENDRICK:  (taken aback) I don’t know. Is there more than one?

CAPTAIN CULLY:  (glowing) Aye, indeed! (calling) Willie Gentle! Willie Gentle! Where is the lad?

NARRATOR 1:  A skinny, lank-haired youth shambled up.

CAPTAIN CULLY:  (to Willie) Recite one of my exploits for the gentleman. Tell the one about how you joined my band. I’ve not heard it since Tuesday last.

WILLIE GENTLE:  (sighs, clears throat)

’Twas Captain Cully came riding home
From slaying of the king’s gay deer,
When whom should he spy but a pale young man,
Come drooping o’er the lea?

“What news, what news, my pretty young man?
What ails ye, that ye sigh so deep?
Is it for loss of your lady fair?
Or are ye but scabbit in your greep?”

“I am not scabbit, whatever that means,
And my greep is as well as a greep may be,
But I do sigh for my lady fair,
Whom my three brothers have taken from me.”

“I am Captain Cully of the sweet greenwood,
And the men at my call are fierce and free.
If I do rescue your lady fair,
What service will ye render me?”

“If ye do rescue my lady fair,
I’ll break your nose, you silly old gowk.
But she wore an emerald at her throat,
Which my three brothers also took.”

Then the captain has gone to the three bold thieves,
And he’s made his sword to shiver and sing.
“Ye may keep the lass, but I’ll have the stone,
For it’s fit for the crown of a royal king.”

Then it’s three cloaks off, and it’s three swords out,
And it’s three swords whistling like the tea.
“By the faith of my body,” says Captain Cully,
“You now shall have neither the stone nor she.”

(continues reciting in mime)

NARRATOR 2:  Captain Cully rocked and hummed and parried three swords with his forearm for the remaining seventeen stanzas, rapturously oblivious to Molly’s mockery and the restlessness of his men. At last, the ballad ended.

SCHMENDRICK:  Very nice. Wonderful.

CAPTAIN CULLY:  Good Willie, good boy, now recite the others. (beaming at SCHMENDRICK) I said that there were several ballads about me. There are thirty-one, to be exact, though none are in the Child collection, just at present. (suddenly getting excited) You wouldn’t be Mr. Child himself, would you? He often goes seeking ballads—so I’ve heard—disguised as a plain man. . . .

SCHMENDRICK:  No. I’m very sorry. Really.

CAPTAIN CULLY:  (droops and sighs) It doesn’t matter. One always hopes, of course, even now—to be collected, to be verified, annotated, to have variant versions, even to have one’s authenticity doubted. . . . Well, well, never mind. (to WILLIE) Recite the other ballads, Willie lad. You’ll need the practice, one day, when you’re field-recorded.

NARRATOR 1:  The outlaws grumbled and scuffed, kicking at stones. A voice bawled from a safe shadow,

DICK FANCY:  Nah, Willie, tell us a true ballad. Tell us one about Robin Hood!

CAPTAIN CULLY:  (instantly on guard) Who said that?

NARRATOR 2:  Cully’s loosened sword clacked in its sheath as he turned from side to side. His face suddenly seemed as pale and weary as a used lemon drop.

MOLLY GRUE:  I did. The men are bored with ballads of your bravery, Captain, darling. Even if you did write them all yourself!

CAPTAIN CULLY:  (winces) Molly! (looks sidelong at SCHMENDRICK and in a low, worried voice to him) They can still be folk ballads, can’t they, Mr. Child? After all—

SCHMENDRICK:  I’m not Mr. Child. Really, I’m not.

CAPTAIN CULLY:  I mean, you can’t leave epic events to the people. They get everything wrong!

NARRATOR 1:  An aging rogue in tattered velvet slunk forward.

DICK FANCY:  Captain, if we’re to have ballads—and I suppose we must—then we feel they ought to be true ballads about real outlaws, not this lying life we live. No offense, captain, but we’re really not very merry, when all’s said—

CAPTAIN CULLY:  (coldly) I am merry twenty-four hours a day, Dick Fancy. That is a fact!

DICK FANCY:  And we don’t steal from the rich and give to the poor. We steal from the poor, because they can’t fight back, most of them. And the rich take from us, because they could wipe us out in a day.

We don’t rob the fat, greedy Mayor on the highway. We pay him tribute every month to leave us alone! We never carry off proud bishops and keep them prisoner in the wood, feasting and entertaining them, because Molly hasn’t any good dishes—and besides, we just wouldn’t be very stimulating company for a bishop.

When we go to the fair in disguise, we never win at the archery or at singlestick. We do get some nice compliments on our disguises—but no more than that.

MOLLY GRUE:  (quietly remembering) I sent a tapestry to the judging, once. It came in fourth. Fifth. It showed a knight at vigil. Everyone was doing vigils, that year. (starts crying softly)

NARRATOR 2:  Suddenly she was scrubbing her eyes with horny knuckles.

MOLLY GRUE:  (softly but bitterly) Damn you, Cully.

CAPTAIN CULLY:  (in exasperation) What! What! Is it my fault you didn’t keep up with your weaving? Once you had your man, you let all your accomplishments go! You don’t sew or sing anymore, you haven’t illuminated a manuscript in years—and what happened to that viola da gamba I got you?

DICK FANCY:  (breaking in) And as for righting wrongs and fighting for civil liberties, that sort of thing, it wouldn’t be so bad—I mean, I’m not the crusader type myself, some are and some aren’t—but then we have to listen to those ballads about wearing Lincoln green and aiding the oppressed. We don’t, Cully. We turn them in for the reward, and those ballads are just embarrassing, and there’s the truth of it.

NARRATOR 1:  Captain Cully ignored the outlaws’ snarls of agreement.

CAPTAIN CULLY:  (with folded arms) Recite the ballads, Willie.

WILLIE GENTLE:  I’ll not! And you never fought my brothers for any stone, Cully! You wrote them a letter, which you didn’t sign—

NARRATOR 2:  Cully drew back his arm, and blades blinked among the men as though someone had blown on a heap of coals.

SCHMENDRICK:  (steps forward with a forced smile) If I may offer an alternative, why not let your guest earn his night’s lodging by amusing you? I am no hand at ballads, but I have my own accomplishments, and you may not have seen their like.

JACK JINGLY:  Aye, Cully, a magician! ’Twould be a rare treat for the lads.

NARRATOR 1:  The men shouted with quick delight, and the only reluctance was shown by Captain Cully himself.

CAPTAIN CULLY:  (protesting sadly) Yes, but the ballads. Mr. Child must hear the ballads.

SCHMENDRICK:  And so I will. Later.

NARRATOR 2:  Cully brightened then, and called to his men,

CAPTAIN CULLY:  Give way! Make room!

NARRATOR 1:  They sprawled and squatted in the shadows, watching with sprung grins as Schmendrick began to run through the old flummeries with which he had entertained the country folk at the Midnight Carnival. It was paltry magic, but he thought it diverting enough for such a crew as Cully’s.

NARRATOR 2:  But he had judged them too easily. They applauded his rings and scarves, his ears full of goldfish and aces, with a proper politeness but without wonder. Offering no true magic, he drew no magic back from them. And when a spell failed, he was clapped just as kindly and vacantly as though he had succeeded.

NARRATOR 1:  Cully smiled impatiently, and Jack Jingly dozed, but it startled the magician to see the disappointment in Molly Grue’s restless eyes.

NARRATOR 2:  Sudden anger made him laugh. He dropped seven spinning balls that had been glowing brighter and brighter as he juggled them, let go all his hated skills, and closed his eyes. He muttered to the magic,

SCHMENDRICK:  Do what you will. Do what you will.

NARRATOR 1:  It sighed through him then, beginning somewhere secret—in his shoulderblade, perhaps, or in the marrow of his shinbone.

NARRATOR 2:  Then his heart filled and tautened like a sail, and something moved more surely in his body than he ever had. It spoke with his voice, commanding.

SCHMENDRICK:  (loudly, swaying, with eyes closed)

Legends old are never done.
Shadows shrink before the sun.

NARRATOR 1:  Weak with power, Schmendrick sank to his knees and waited to be Schmendrick again. He had done something, but he had no idea what it was.

NARRATOR 2:  He opened his eyes. Most of the outlaws were chuckling and tapping their temples, glad of the chance to mock him. Captain Cully had risen, anxious to pronounce that part of the entertainment ended.

MOLLY GRUE:  (in a soft, shaky voice, pointing) Look!

(ALL turn to look and remain frozen in awe.)

NARRATOR 1:  A man came walking into the clearing. He was dressed in green, but for a brown jerkin and a slanting brown cap with a woodcock’s feather in it. He was very tall, too tall for a living man. The great bow slung over his shoulder looked as long as Jack Jingly, and his arrows would have made spears or staves for Captain Cully.

NARRATOR 2:  Taking no notice at all of the still, shabby forms by the fire, he strode through the night and vanished, with no sound of breath or footfall.

NARRATOR 1:  After him came others—one at a time, or two together—some conversing, many laughing, but none making any sound.

NARRATOR 2:  All carried longbows and all wore green, save one who came clad in scarlet to his toes, and another gowned in a friar’s brown habit, his enormous belly contained by a rope belt. One played a lute and sang silently as he walked.

NARRATOR 1:  The bowmen moved across the clearing, effortlessly proud, graceful as giraffes—even the tallest among them, a kind-eyed giant.

NARRATOR 2:  Last of all came a man and a woman, hand in hand. Their faces were as beautiful as though they had never known fear.

MOLLY GRUE:  (softly, in awe) Oh. Marian.

CAPTAIN CULLY:  (nervously) Robin Hood is a myth, a classic example of the heroic folk figures synthesized out of need. Men have to have heroes, but no man can ever be as big as the need—and so a legend grows around a grain of truth, like a pearl. (grudgingly) Not that it isn’t a remarkable trick, of course.

NARRATOR 1:  All but the last two figures had passed into the darkness, when Dick Fancy cried out.

DICK FANCY:  Robin! Robin! Mr. Hood, sir! Wait for me! (rushes off)

WILLIE GENTLE:  And for me! Robin! Marian! Wait! (rushes off)

NARRATOR 2:  The man and the woman had passed from sight, but every man of Cully’s band, save only Jack Jingly and the captain himself, rose and ran off to the clearing’s edge—tripping and trampling one another—then went crashing into the woods after the shining archers.

CAPTAIN CULLY:  (calling after them) Fools! Fools and children! It was a lie, like all magic! There is no such person as Robin Hood!

MOLLY GRUE:  (softly) Nay, Cully, you have it backward. There’s no such person as you, or me, or any of us. Robin and Marian are real, and we are the lie. (calling) Wait! Wait!

NARRATOR 1:  She ran on like the others, leaving Captain Cully and Jack Jingly to stand in the trampled firelight and listen to the magician’s soft laughter.

Book cover: The Last Unicorn
Read the book!

The Last Unicorn
By Peter S. Beagle