Nonfiction > Upton Sinclair, ed. > The Cry for Justice

Upton Sinclair, ed. (1878–1968).
The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest.  1915.
King Hunger

By Leonid Andreyev

(Russian novelist and dramatist of social protest; 1871–1919. In this grim symbolical drama is voiced the despair of Russia’s intellectuals after the tragic failure of the Revolution. In the first scene King Hunger is shown inciting the starving factory-slaves to revolt; in the second, he presides over a gathering of the outcasts of society, who meet in a cellar to discuss projects of ferocious vengeance upon the idlers in the ball-room over their heads, but break up in a drunken brawl instead. In the present scene, King Hunger turns traitor to his victims, and presides as a judge passing sentence upon them. The leisure class attend as spectators in the court-room, the women in evening gowns and jewels, “the men in dress coats and surtouts, carefully shaven and dressed at the wig-makers”)
KING HUNGER:—Show in the first starveling.
  (The first starveling, a ragged old man with lacerated feet, is conducted into the court-room. A wire muzzle encases his face.)
  KING HUNGER:—Take the muzzle off the starveling. What’s your offense, Starveling?
  OLD MAN (speaking in a broken voice):—Theft.
  KING HUNGER:—How much did you steal?        5
  OLD MAN:—I stole a five-pound loaf, but it was wrested from me. I had only time to bite a small piece of it. Forgive me, I will never again——
  KING HUNGER:—How? Have you acquired an inheritance? Or won’t you eat hereafter?
  OLD MAN:—No. It was wrested from me. I only chewed off a small piece——
  KING HUNGER:—But how won’t you steal? Why haven’t you been working?
  OLD MAN:—There’s no work.        10
  KING HUNGER:—But where’s your brood, Starveling? Why don’t they support you?
  OLD MAN:—My children died of hunger.
  KING HUNGER:—Why did you not starve to death, as they?
  OLD MAN:—I don’t know. I had a mind to live.
  KING HUNGER:—Of what use is life to you, Starveling? (Voices of Spectators.)        15
  —Indeed, how do they live? I don’t comprehend it.
  —To work.
  —To glorify God and be confirmed in the consciousness that life—
  —Well, I don’t suppose they exalt Him.
  —It were better if he were dead.        20
  —A rather wearisome old fellow. And what style of trousers!
  —Listen! Listen!
  KING HUNGER (rising, speaks aloud):—Now, ladies and gentlemen, we will feign to meditate. Honorable judges, I beg you to simulate a meditative air.
  (The judges for a brief period appear in deep thought—they knit their brows, gaze up at the ceiling, prop up their noses, sigh and obviously endeavor to think. Venerable silence. Then with faces profoundly solemn and earnest, silent as before, the judges rise, and simultaneously they turn around facing Death. And all together they bow low and lingering, stretching themselves forward.)
  KING HUNGER (with bent head):—What is your pleasure?        25
  DEATH (swiftly rising, wrathfully strikes the table with his clenched fist and speaks in a grating voice):—Condemned—in the name of Satan!
  (Then as quickly he sits down and sinks into a malicious inflexibility. The judges resume their places.)
  KING HUNGER:—Starveling, you’re condemned.
  OLD MAN:—Have mercy!
  KING HUNGER:—Put the muzzle over him. Bring the next starveling.…        30
  (The next starveling is led into the room. She is a graceful, but extremely emaciated young woman, with a face pallid and tragic to view. The black, fine eyebrows join over her nose; her luxuriant hair is negligently tied in a knot, falling down her shoulders. She makes no bows nor looks around, is as if seeing nobody. Her voice is apathetic and dull.)
  KING HUNGER:—What’s your offense, Starveling?
  YOUNG WOMAN:—I killed my child.
  —Oh, horrors! This woman is altogether destitute of motherly feelings.        35
  —What do you expect of them? You astonish me.
  —How charming she is. There’s something tragical about her.
  —Then marry her.
  —Crimes of infanticide were not regarded as such in ancient times, and were looked upon as a natural right of parents. Only with the introduction of humanism into our customs——
  —Oh, please, just a second, professor.        40
  —But science, my child——
  KING HUNGER:—Tell us, Starveling, how it happened.
  (With drooping hands and motionless, the woman speaks up dully and dispassionately.)
  YOUNG WOMAN:—One night my baby and I crossed the long bridge over the river. And since I had long before decided, so then approaching the middle, where the river is deep and swift, I said: “Look, baby dear, how the water is a-roaring below.” She said, “I can’t reach, mamma, the railing is so high.” I said, “Come, let me lift you, baby dear.” And when she was gazing down into the black deep, I threw her over. That’s all.
  KING HUNGER:—Did she grip you?        45
  KING HUNGER:—She screamed?
  YOUNG WOMAN:—Yes, once.
  KING HUNGER:—What was her name?
  YOUNG WOMAN:—Baby dear.        50
  KING HUNGER:—No, her name. How was she called?
  YOUNG WOMAN:—Baby dear.
  KING HUNGER (covering his face, he speaks in sad, quivering voice):—Honorable judges, I beg you to simulate a meditative air. (The judges knit their brows, gaze on the ceiling, chew their lips. Venerable silence. Then they rise and gravely bow to Death.)
  DEATH:—Condemned—in the name of Satan!
  KING HUNGER (rising, speaks aloud, extending his hands to the woman, as if veiling her in an invisible, black shroud):—You’re condemned, woman, do you hear? Death awaits you. In blackest hell you will be tormented and burnt on everlasting, slakeless fires! Devils will rack your heart with their iron talons! The most venomous serpents of the infernal abyss will suck your brain and sting, sting you, and nobody will heed your agonizing cries, for you’ll be silenced. Let eternal night be over you. Do you hear, Starveling?        55
  KING HUNGER:—Muzzle her.
  (The starveling is led away. King Hunger addresses the spectators in a frank and joyous manner.) Now, ladies and gentlemen, I propose recess for luncheon. Adjudication is a fatiguing affair, and we need to invigorate ourselves. (Gallantly.) Especially our charming matrons and the young ladies. Please!
  (Joyful exclamations.)
  —To dine! To dine!        60
  —’Tis about time!
  —Mamma dear, where are the bonbons?
  —Your little mind is only on bonbons!
  —Which—is tried? (Waking up.)
  —Dinner is ready, Your Excellency.        65
  —Ah! Why didn’t you wake me up before?
  (Everything assumes at once a happy, amiable, homelike aspect. The judges pull off their wigs, exposing their bald heads, and gradually they lose themselves in the crowd, shake hands, and with feigned indifference they look askance, contemplating the dining. Portly waiters in rich liveries, with difficulty and bent under the weight of immense dishes, bring gigantic portions; whole mutton trunks, colossal hams, high, mountain-like roasts. Before the stout man, on a low stool, they place a whole roasted pig, which is brought in by three. Doubtful, he looks at it.)
  —Would you assist me, Professor?
  —With pleasure, Your Excellency.
  —And you, Honorable Judge?        70
  —Although I am not hungry—but with your leave—
  —I may, perhaps, be suffered to—(the Abbot modestly speaks, his mouth watering.)
  (The four seat themselves about the pig and silently they carve it greedily with their knives. Occasionally the eyes of the Professor and of the Abbot meet, and with swollen cheeks, powerless to chew, they are smitten with reciprocal hatred and contempt. Then choking, they ardently champ on. Everywhere small groups eating. Death produces a dry cheese sandwich from his pocket and eats in solitude. A heavy conversation of full-crammed mouths. Munching.)

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