Nightmare at Beth Sarim
(a one-act play)
Setting: Beth Sarim is a ten-bedroom mansion in San Diego, California
We see the figure of J.F. (the Judge) Rutherford. (Rutherford heads up a Bible & Tract Society).
Night has come to Beth Sarim's mansion as President Joe Rutherford (the "Judge") sits cleaning his pistol and sipping whisky from a flask on the edge of his silk sheets at bedtime.
There is a knock at the bedroom door.
"Come!" the Judge growls.
The finely polished door creaks open and into his bed chambers steps a newly resurrected Charles Taze Russell with a full beard (minus mustache).
He is naked as a jaybird.
(Russell is the founder of the Publishing Society. After his death, Rutherford inveigled his way to the Presidency, violating the terms of his Last Will and Testament.)
Rutherford glances up. Startled, he spills his flask, dropping the pistol to the floor. The gun hits on the cocked hammer and a bullet whizzes through Russell's beard penetrating the oak door jam.
"Great Zion!, what's going on here?" The Judge roars as he woozily tries to leap to his feet.
"Oh, stifle it, Judge. I'm an Ancient Worthy returning to claim the mansion and I want you out now!"
Russell scratches the hole in his beard and saunters over to the chest of drawers next to Rutherford's bed and begins opening drawers.
"Ah, pajamas!" Russell grins.
"STOP! You...you zombie apparition...I'll have you arrested!"
The Judge screams but suddenly pauses in mid-breath to appraise the figure before him. It dawns on him quickly----the man really is Charley Russell!
Immediately his legs lose strength and he falls back on the bed. The whiskey flask catapults into the air and clunks him on the forehead with a "ping"."Oh, dear Lord...oh dear Lord..." this is terrible...just terrible..."
Russell looks on with disdain, shaking his head.
"What's terrible about me returning, Judge? You told everyone at the assemblies the Ancient Worthies would return."
"No, it's not that", Rutherford groans, "I spilled whiskey all over the sheets. It was my last bottle till the new shipment comes in from Canada. Ohhhh ..."
Russell begins tugging on his pajamas one leg at a time.
"What's so bad about that, J.F.?"
"PROHIBITION, that's what's bad about it!
Congress prohibited alcohol 5 years ago. Those idiots made it illegal to buy or manufacture alcoholic beverages!!"
Rutherford sits up and rubs the bump on his head, then, slyly grins at the sight of Charles Taze Russell wearing his polka dot silk pajamas.
"You think I'm funny? I'm looking at an alcoholic so-called Saint. Now that's funny."
The Judge curls his lip.
"Heh heh, you are one scrawny sumbitch and ye always looked anemic to me." (His smile fades.) "Say, why don't you have a Perfect Body? Yer resurrected, aren't ye?"
Russell finds a chair near the bed and scoots it across the fine Turkish carpet and seats himself next to Rutherford's bed, and sits knee to knee.
"Judge, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy".
"Huh?" The Judge is taken aback.
"Shakespeare...I'd have thought a college boy would know it."
Russell begins absent-mindedly weaving the hairs of his beard into little Hassidic braids and then unwinding them as he speaks.
"Rutherford, listen to me. I speak in the name of our Lord as his Faithful and Wise Servant...."
The Judge interrupts.
"No, now just hold on a second. That's not kosher anymore. We changed all that. You aren't the mouthpiece of Jah---I AM!"
Russell glares and stands up looking down at Rutherford's bald pate.
He points a bony finger in his eye.
"You sir---are a common thief! You were NOT designated to take over the corporation in my will!! You are not my APPOINTED successor. By what right do you make any changes?"
The old voice is shrill and raspy and the eyes bulging from their watery sockets.
Rutherford jumps to his feet and pushes the bony finger aside and walks past Russell to the doorway. He opens the door and points to the empty space in the hallway.
"Get out you grey-beard loony!"
Russell doesn't budge.
He smiles and sits down on the whiskey flask- flinches- pulls it out of his behind and tosses it at Rutherford.
Rutherford closes the door calmly and sits in the chair where Russell had been sitting. He realizes the old man is not going to be bluffed by bluster.
"Now look, Charley, what I did was a sharp LEGAL and pretty damned clever move. I pulled a finesse. I razzled and dazzled.
Do you know what legal finesse is?
(Russell stares motionless). "I'll tell you what it is....it is an indication that I'm the one with the brains to get this religion into the mainstream on a paying basis. We've pretty much used up your personal fortune. Now it is time for the brethren to give back. I've given them work to do that generates some real cash flow!"
Russell lies back on the cushy swan's down pillow and crosses his ankles staring up at the canopy over the bed. He purses his lips and then turns his head toward Rutherford.
"Racketeer would be more accurate than a thief.
You are a racketeer, Joe. I sent you away - remember? I gave you a loan so you could start your own law firm in Los Angeles.
You want to make a beautiful bunch of Bible Students into a racket---what did you call it? Ah yes, a 'mainstream" religious sect. Why? Why would you destroy my work like this? Just for the money?"
Rutherford stands up and his eyes grow very large. He holds his index finger aloft and shouts, "Bingo!"
He climbs up on the chair and reaches into the light fixture. Pulling out a small flask of whiskey he yanks the cork and chugs back a gulp. "Ahhh."
"Now, what were you blathering about, Russell? I'm a what? A crook? A Racketeer? Pot calling the kettle black, if you ask me."
He climbs down off the chair and takes another hit from the whiskey and replaces the cork.
"Follow me, old man!"
Rutherford exits the bedroom without looking back.
The two men reach the bottom of the stairs and Rutherford gestures broadly to Russell.
"You see all this? It isn't for you as an Ancient Worthy.
It is really for me. The boys at Bethel wanted to get me out of their hair. Why? Because I'm tough and foul-mouthed? No, because I don't put up with crap like YOU DID! You let your own wife make a fool out of you!"
Rutherford leads Russell throughout the mansion stopping now and again to point out the valuables, antiques, carpets, silverware, and crystals as he speaks. Russell peers approvingly each time and nods in appreciation. His mind is busy working quietly.
"Pastor, you poured a King's Ransom into the Bible Students and what good did it do? No, don't answer--I'll tell you. You fed a lot of people a load of pyramid crap and nothing more. But, you did do one thing right. You got people busy. Busy Christians are valuable as an asset to the corporation".
They stroll into the garden area and the men pause in front of the various floral groups and hedges as they chat.
"Now Pastor, it doesn't really matter much that you got them all excited for nothing---I mean, Armageddon didn't come in 1874, did it? In 1914, did it? You thought it would and even insisted God told you it would--don't deny it! Do you know what year it is now?"
Russell shrugs. "Last time I glanced at the calendar - it was ... October, I916."
"Hahaha. No, you bewhiskered old pastor---it is 1929, You've been dead NINE years! And, guess what? There is STILL NO ARMAGEDDON! The Stock Market just crashed. And yet - somehow you managed to crawl out of your grave?? How?"
Russell, truly bewildered, begins to weep but no water comes out of his eyes. He sighs and shrugs.
"That cannot be true, Judge. It cannot be true. I am alive! That means the resurrection has happened if I was dead. No Armageddon? How?"
Rutherford motions for him to sit on a concrete bench in front of a flowing fountain. The evening air is turning brisk in Southern California. The stars begin to show in a clear sky. Somewhere a dog begins yapping at a noisy neighbor.
"Sit here, Pastor. Here, have a snort of rye whiskey. It will put whiskers on your balls!"
Russell turns his head disgustedly. He is a Pilgrim Puritan through and through.
"Fine, more for me then." Rutherford takes a slug of rye and wipes his lips.
"Here is how the cow eats the cabbage. Listen up and be quiet."
Rutherford stands and begins an impromptu lecture, as though he were in front of a jury of tired old businessmen.
"Your money is the only thing that carried you as far as you went, Pastor Charles. That money - and your wife, Maria! Without her writing, editing, and charisma - how far would you have gone? She exposed you as a phony and everything went downhill. All those lawsuits!"
Russell gives him a poisonous look and grunts in disgust.
"Stings you to hear it? Well, it is true. It was Maria who came up with the doctrine of Faithful and Wise Servant and she applied it to you. It is what made you a Brand Name if you will. You became the Mouthpiece of the Lord. Your money, your publishing company, and your colporteurs advertised the Pyramid nonsense and made it work. Ya got people all stirred up expecting dates that disproved everything. Don't deny it."
Russell opens his mouth to protest, thinks the better of it, and motions for Rutherford to finish with a wave of his hand.
"People love END TIMES. It is deliciously exciting.
They get themselves all in a lather about the coming of the Lord. Ya know why? I"ll tell you and you know in your heart it is true. People love to get worked up over the Armageddon business because it is the only damned thing that can make them actually FEEL something - even though it's FEAR."
Russell leaps to his feet in a self-righteous zeal,
"Stop that blasphemy you contemptible cur! Don't speak about our Lord's revealed word in such a venal tone! He will strike you dead on the spot!"
Rutherford makes a mocking face and smiles, "Okay, Strike me down now, Lord----if you are up there--out there, over there----umm, where exactly is the Lord this evening, Pastor?"
Russell pulls himself up to full height and tilts his head back in disdain.
"MY Lord is watching you and weighing every word that falls from your blasphemous lips. You have been weighed in the balance and found lacking!"
Judge Rutherford pulls back his smoking jacket and points to his cummerbund with the holster.
"See this pistol, Pastor, that is the only word of the Lord that can speak around here."
Russell points to the empty holster. "As empty as your soul."
"Oh!" The Judge mutters with surprise. "I forgot I wounded your beard with it. Sorry about that. You startled me."
Russell beckons for the Judge to sit beside him in a gazebo near the center of the flowered walkway. The Pastor speaks quietly building up a head of steam as he goes.
"I sincerely believed every word I wrote or spoke in my lifetime. You wouldn't understand that, would you? No, you are a lawyer. A lawyer is all about getting a thing done regardless of it being right or wrong. A judge, in fact, is the one who decides what is right and wrong--does he not? You speak it---and it is now a legal truth. That has obviously become a habit in your thinking. Well, showing off doesn't make you anything but a lout."
"Judge, you are an ambitious and ruthless fellow who saw a good thing with certain potential and you found a ... for want of a better word..." legal" way of stealing it. Yes, I said STEALING. I specified in my will who should succeed me and you invalidated my wishes. The corporation was mine, bought with my money and hard work---and you have destroyed my life's creation."
Rutherford sneers at this.
"Ho ho ho, I see you admit it is YOUR creation and none of the Lord's doing. Nothing you predicted was true."
Russell turns defiantly.
"Nobody knows - okay? But William Miller and I turned a spotlight on the arrival of our Master. The Lord used me as his instrument to prepare the way for his Kingdom. I prepared people and made certain their attention was on His coming. I pointed the way like John the Baptist did for Christ the first time around."
Rutherford spits the words out of his mouth along with a sip of whiskey.
"Ha! You were wrong about everything you thought you were CERTAIN about and you were right about absolutely nothing. You said 1914 was not the beginning of the end - but the END. Armageddon. That World War in Europe only momentarily made you look plausible."
Russell, aghast, can only shake his head painfully. He knows nothing about a World War or its end in Armistice.
A chill flows through the garden and the gazebo begins to move slightly as a breeze catches the leaves and flowers. Rutherford continues.
"You sponsored the most convincing fanatics with their charts, timelines, chronologies and then copied what you liked and peddled it along with pyramidology. Do you know why? Well, I do. It was because your Mother coddled you too much. She filled your head with Presbyterian Hellfire fears! Right? She then died burning up with a fever and it marked you for life!
Your father's business success taught you how to organize people to work for you. SELLING - SELLING- always selling the "No Hell" brand of Adventist razzle-dazzle."
Russell is shivering in the cold now, half-distracted.
He sticks out his lower lip and reaches for Rutherford's whiskey bottle.
The Judge passes it approvingly to the old Pastor and watches with a fatherly smile as the old man chokes down a warm glow of Prohibition Booze.
"You didn't know my mother. She'd had so many miscarried babies and finally - me. Sure, she was over-protective. But it was Victorian times and children were reared strictly as possible. I couldn't swallow Presbyterian hell. I turned Congregational and finally gave up on the Bible for a long while. But the Adventists knew something worth checking out. Sure I paid money for their teachings. I published them. I listened, learned, and took the best of what they offered. Why shouldn't I follow my heart in the matter?"
Rutherford takes the bottle back and corks it.
"You smuggled that Pyramid horse dung into all of it. Tomfoolery is sold as God's witness in stone. Shame on you!"
He pauses to gaze up at the night sky that looks now like spilled talcum powder on a black suit. Shaking his head to clear it, he continues in a moderate tone of assured confidence.
"You built religion with a Jesus who didn't scare you . The invisible Jesus who rules now is a real twist of genius. But, you fumbled it badly Pastor, you really dropped the ball. You became convinced by that Wife of yours that your writings were
the whispers of God. You didn't know any more than anybody else did. Faithful and Wise Servant was her idea and when you allowed it - you lost your soul."
Russell stood shaking his head miserably.
"Oh stifle, Judge. Just stifle." The pastor replied meekly. His face was troubled and drawn.
"Ha! Maria figured you out pretty quick. You were not a husband in the bedroom with her and she caught you with that young girl---your adopted daughter--what was the name?"
"Rose Ball. That was Paternal love. That was evil rumor and nothing more."
"Right, Pastor, and I'm not a drunken Judge either. But, I digress ... your mismanagement of the Miracle Wheat fiasco brought you into court and exposed you as a phony scholar on the witness stand. You were unable to read simple Greek sentences - you blew your authenticity. You lost a lot of those Bible Students, right?"
"Well," the Pastor began, "the Lord saw fit to take me unto him. I am resurrected. That must mean something!"
"What?" Rutherford looked mockingly quizzical. "Is this place heaven and am I the Lord?"
"I - I," the Pastor halted. "I... I just don't know."
Rutherford beamed brightly.
"You never did 'Know', you old poseur. You just THOUGHT you knew."
The two men slowly rose and walked back into the house out of the night air. They settle in at the vast kitchen area at the dining table. Rutherford pours them each a thick shot glass full of rye and they begin smoking long cigars from Cuba.
Thoughtfully, Russell begins to muse...
"Yes, I was convinced the Lord was speaking directly through me as his mouthpiece. It was the look in the eyes of the brethren when I met with them and spoke to them face to face. They looked at me AS THOUGH the Lord were speaking through me. Do you know what that feels like to a man like me? IT IS EVERYTHING!" He cooed wonderingly.
Rutherford snorts dismissively.
"Oh, I see that myself. Those people are idiots. I'd rather do what Machiavelli said. "I'd rather be feared and obeyed than loved." It works better than your method. I wear a pistol and I have bodyguards. I have a chauffeur and a flask of whisky. Do you know who my enemies are? The big-shots with all the fame, glory, and money. I put myself right up there on their level ...You know how? I put myself HIGHER MORALLY than they are. I condemn them! It works, Pastor, it works. They fear me and hate me. I wear the badge of Faithful and Wise Sheriff."
Russell shakes his head and tugs his beard causing the few braids to fall out.
"It's all about you, then, Judge? The Lord is nowhere to be found?"
Rutherford looks straight into Pastor Russell's watery eyes.
"It is all about POWER!
I'm working on a brand name to top the current bestsellers: Baptist, Methodist, Catholic - no - my idea is better. You have to have a brand name, you see, to advertise and promote your goods. I want people to fear the LORD HIMSELF. I'll have to demote Jesus from the number one spot, of course."
"Disgusting!" Russell frowns and closes his eyes in pain. He rubs his temples and heaves a long sigh.
"My new brand name will be revealed eventually when I work out the kinks in the theology of it all. It will contain the divine name. A real attention-getter. We'll get lots of publicity each time our side doesn't salute a flag, don't say the pledge, don't celebrate a birthday, don't go for Christmas and Easter, or serve in the armed forces. We'll get free publicity everywhere because...we'll make everybody mad, we'll be mistreated, arrested, jailed. That will prove to the world we are persecuted for our faith."
Russell can stand no more. He jumps up and pushes the dining chair back away from the table.
"You must be stopped, Judge. You are dangerous. You've wrecked everything I ever stood for. I'm going to stop you."
Rutherford scowls craftily and beckons for Russell to follow. They climb the stairs. Re-entering the bedroom, Rutherford reaches down on the floor and picks up his pistol. He checks the cylinder to determine how many bullets remain.
"Pastor Russell, I misjudged you. Which is ironic for a man called JUDGE, is it not?"
Rutherford chuckles out loud having a good laugh, then continues.
"I buried you and your faithful and wise servant image. We're in the process of scuttling the Great Pyramid teachings. We are replacing your work with a real campaign of door-to-door work that will bring Christendom to its knees. Paradise and Heaven are the CARROT and Armageddon is the STICK. When the brethren get sluggish or backslide I'll pull out the stick you used inadvertently: DATE SETTING! That will shock and scare them back to the fold. When the date comes and goes without anything happening---well, I'll do what you always did: I'll be humble and show how eager we were for Christ's promises to come now. I'll even turn it back on them if they get surly about it. A certain amount of turnover is to be expected in every business...um, I mean, Religion."
Russell, aghast, reaches for the telephone...but, Rutherford points the pistol at his face and shakes his head from side to side menacingly.
"I wouldn't do that, Pastor. You only live twice, you know."
Russell decides the Judge is bluffing and picks up the receiver anyway.
"Last chance, Pastor, I mean it. I don't know how you came back to life or why you are here, but, I can't let you stop my success from happening. I'm a mover and a shaker and things are starting to move. People will believe ANYTHING you tell them if you put fear behind it."
Russell turns to leave.
"I can't listen to any more of this. You are obviously quite insane."
As Russell reaches the door, the sound of three loud blasts shakes the windows and echoes against the wood paneling. Russell falls to the floor with a loud thump and groans once ... then twice ... and a death rattle brings only silence.
Rutherford watches impassively as the gun smoke swirls in curlicues around him. He reaches for the tug cord and summons the help. Perhaps his chauffeur can lift this old man into a gunny sack and dump him in the Pacific Ocean before sunrise. After all, it wasn't murder per se. You can't be convicted of killing an already dead man.
Rutherford takes another long swig on the bottle and lays down on the bed to rest for a moment as the sound of footsteps running up the stairs is heard.
"Sir? Sir? Judge, sir? You rang for me, sir?"
The voice wakes Rutherford from a deep and troubled slumber.
"Huh, the hell you say?" Rutherford's eyes open like a newly born kitten.
"What are you blubbering about?"
"Sir, you summoned me. Did you have another of your nightmares sir? If I might caution you, sir, Homemade booze has poisoned many people. It is in the papers. Really, sir, you should be more careful. Wait for the shipment to come in from Canada."
Rutherford pushes the man away. "Remove the body, will you? Before sunrise?"
"What body, sir?"
The two men stand for a long while - each staring at an empty spot on the floor.
Rutherford swallows hard and stares at the bootleg moonshine and tosses the bottle out of the window.
"Nevermind. My daddy used to warn me about a guilty conscience when I was a boy. He said to me these words.
"There is a destiny that makes us brothers; none goes his way alone. What we send into the lives of others will come back into our own."
Bootleg hooch just kicked me in the ass."