Life's Choices: A Play Based on Eight Characters in Proverbs
As a seminary Old Testament professor, I struggled with how to teach the book of Proverbs. As I read and re-read Proverbs, however, I saw it contained character stereotypes. It is a very modern book, for it shows qualities that contribute to success or failure in life over a long period of time. The characters in Proverbs, exaggerated as part of the genre of Wisdom Literature, make important choices about how to live. I grouped verses about the types of people one sees daily in life's marketplace and wrote a vaudevillian-style play called Life's Choices: A Play Based on Eight Characters in Proverbs.
In 2003 when I wrote the play, I was serving as Fulbright Scholar in the Faculty of Theology at Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education in Potchefstroom, South Africa. By government edict, the university soon merged with another and became North-West University. I was asked to stay on as associate professor at North-West for a finite appointment of an additional 19 months after the Fulbright ended. During my tenure at North-West, the play took on a lot of life and was performed at various gatherings in Potchefstroom. The play, containing musical interludes and dances, was so well received that it was produced by North-West's media department; the professional video then became part of the permanent curriculum for Old Testament classes.
The play was written with a South African setting. It takes place on the Bult, a busy area of coffee houses and bookshops near the university in Potchestroom; bult is an Afrikaaner word meaning small hill. The time is morning.
The actors enter to music and wear nametags. The set is minimal: ladders, tables, big black blocks. Simple Youth, a First Year (South African for freshman) student and the play's hero, faces many choices. He meets Sluggard, who tries to sleep all day; Drunkard, who totes a big wine bottle and looks for a fight; Satisfied Husband, a magistrate (judge) who constantly talks about his noble wife, the Proverbs 31 woman; Adulteress, a lonely woman looking for men; Gossip, who delights in breaking up friendships; Lady Folly, who likes the easy way; and Lady Wisdom, who invites everybody to her banquet. Which lifestyle will Simple Youth choose? Throughout the day, Simple Youth listens to their stories and ultimately makes a decision that will set the direction for the rest of his life.
The actors for the video and other South African performances were my students; all were associated in some way with the Faculty of Theology. They performed the play in English—which was their second or third language after Afrikaans and Zulu. I believe that their memorization of the lines changed their lives, too. They saw first hand the cost of adultery, drunkenness, and gossip, for example. The video was shown twice at the 2004 meeting of the Old Testament Society of South Africa in Johannesburg; it will be shown in April in St. Louis at the Central States Regional Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.
My tenure in South Africa ended in December 2004. I brought the play back with me, of course. I have found that the play continues to have life in the States. A segment was seen in November 2005 at SBL's annual meeting. I used the video as part of my employment lecture at Sterling College. But its most "fun" presentation in the States was another live performance. I was asked to be Scholar in Residence at Florida Presbyterian Homes, a retirement community in Lakeland, Florida, in February and March 2005. There, a spry octet of septuagenarians and octogenarians presented the play—to much good will and acclaim. For you see, the wise know that the pursuit of wisdom, a message of Proverbs, must continue throughout life.
Scene: The Bult in Potchefstroom, South Africa
Time: Early Morning
Note: Much of the dialogue is based on scripture references from Proverbs. These texts are given next to each character's description. Each character wears a nametag placard on a string stating his/her character's name.
- Lady Wisdom (Prov.1:18-19; 24-31; 5:4; 9, 15-20; 6:6, 13, 32-35; 8:7-8, 10-18; 9:1-6, 9-11; 26:14). Dignified, gracious, courtly in bearing, Lady Wisdom speaks wisely; she knows the people of the town.
- Lady Folly (Prov. 1:7, 22; 9:13-17; 10:1; 17:24-25; 18:2; 19:13; 21:20). Loud, brash, sloppy in bearing. She displays open dislike for Lady Wisdom. She chews gum. She also knows the people in the town. She twirls her hair, paints her nails, looks bored at times.
- Drunkard (Prov. 23:29-35; 20:1). He slouches around. He burps. He waves a bottle. Sometimes he is sober. He staggers. He has alcohol breath, which nobody likes. He looks very slovenly. He has bruises and his shirt is miss-buttoned. Both Drunkard and Sluggard have day-old beards, an effect that can be achieved by rubbing burnt toast on the face.
- Sluggard (Prov. 10:4-5, 26; 15:19; 18:9; 19:15; 24; 20:4; 21:25; 22:13; 24:30, 34; 26:13). He sleeps on the floor or wherever. He snores. He loudly turns over. He looks very unkept and sloppy.
- Gossip (Prov. 17:1; 16:28; 17:9; 11:13; 26:20; Psalm 50:20). She is a busybody, always going hither and thither. She likes whispers, knowing winks, secret conferences. She goes from person to person on stage. She might mime a cell-phone conversation. She carries a tray and acts as a waitress.
- Adulteress (Prov. 2:16-18; 5:3, 9, 20; 6:24, 28; 7:5, 10-13, 21). She is beautiful and beautifully dressed. Her countenance is hard; she has a cunning look about her. She openly flirts with all the men. She wears a boa that she uses in her flirtations.
- Simple Youth (Prov. 1:8, 11-19). The "hero" of the Book of Proverbs. He is easily led; at this stage in his life he lacks discernment and discretion. He is young and gangly and unsure of himself. He is dressed in casual clothes. He wears a baseball cap.
- Satisfied Husband (Prov. 19:22; 31:10-31). This man is the husband of the Proverbs 31 woman. He is prosperous, assured, humorous, well spoken. He wears a suit and carries a briefcase.
The lights are bright. The stage contains two ladders downstage, stage right and stage left. Lady Wisdom uses the ladder stage right quite a bit. It may be higher than the other one, if desired. There are two tables with two chairs each, upstage right and downstage left. Behind the table downstage left is another table where Gossip puts her tray and cups. The two tables have tablecloths and flowers on them, for they represent two coffee houses on the Bult. There can be a large sign on the back wall simply saying Bult. In front of the sign is a bench or three straight chairs that form a bench. Drunkard and Adulteress end up there frequently.
The characters enter from a door at the back or side of the auditorium. They make conversation and general noise. They greet the members of the audience and engage them in hellos and handshakes. The Sluggard goes downstage, stage left. He lies down facing the audience. The Drunkard collapses against a wall facing the audience or lies across the "bench" chairs upstage. Lady Folly and Lady Wisdom take separate paths up to the tops of their ladders. The ladders represent the high places of the city. The Satisfied Husband sits in a chair, stage right; he may carry a briefcase. The Gossip, a busybody, fusses over everybody; she carries a tray with cups, for she serves as a waitress. She stands behind the table, stage left. The Simple Youth enters looking dazed, maybe sipping a soda. The Adulteress slinks across the stage, taking in everything, calculating her moves. Lady Folly climbs to the other ladder, stage left. Simple Youth sits with his legs over the stage.
(She climbs to the top of the ladder, stage right, and delivers the opening remarks.) I am Lady Wisdom. I invite you all to a banquet. I've prepared my meat and mixed my wine. Here! I'm calling to you from the highest point in the city. You who are simple, come! Come! Eat at my banquet! Drink my wine! I'll teach you to live and to walk in the way of understanding. Wise men, I invite you as well! For you long to be wiser still! You know that wisdom comes from instruction! The foundation of my teaching is respect for the Lord. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Getting to know the Holy One is the beginning of understanding ourselves. I invite you to know me, Lady Wisdom. Through me your days will be many and years, happy years, will be added to your life.
I am new in Potchefstroom. I came to get an education. Is that the same as wisdom? My parents are sacrificing a lot to send me to university. My father gave me much advice. He told me to remember his instruction and not to forsake my mother's teaching. He told me there would be many choices! He said I would see many lifestyles! He's right! They're here on the Bult! I've already been asked to take part in a carjacking and to waylay people on the N12. But I said I had to study!
You made the right decision to leave those ruffians alone! People like that who plot to get ill-gotten gain end up dead themselves.
(A busybody, Gossip cannot be still. She constantly listens, sneaks up on people, winks. Two of her mannerisms are short little steps and "leading" with her nose. Meanwhile, Adulteress comes up to the Simple Youth. She walks around him. He watches as she circles him. He is interested. She is interested.)
Wherever I go there is strife. That's because I enjoy telling the truth about people. I make a point of separating friends. Once they know the truth about each other, they shouldn't be friends after all. I am the Gossip!
(She talks both to the Simple Youth and Satisfied Husband.) I'm the wayward wife with beguiling words. I seduce. My husband has a huge belly that falls over his belt. I ignore the covenant we made because I cannot stand him. I have found other friends. Exciting friends. They love death. I know the paths and the dance that lead to death. I cultivate smooth speech. My lips drip with honey. Come, youths and real men! (She looks at the Simple Youth and Satisfied Husband.) Give me your strength! Let's enjoy a wayward life together! Come. Let my seductive words convince you of the pleasures of life with me. Come. Let my smooth talk lead you where I know you really want to go.
Yes, her lips drip with honey and her speech is smoother than oil, but the way of death she advocates is as bitter as gall. In the end, she turns on her lovers with actions and words sharper than a two-edged sword.
Mid-Morning (Dance #1)
(The characters move in a simple kind of dance formation. They walk toward center stage, clap another's hands, turn, and go to different sections. Only the Sluggard and Lady Folly remain in the same place. Lady Wisdom goes upstage. Gossip goes up to her waitress station; she and Lady Folly like each other a lot. The Satisfied Husband returns to his chair and puts his leg up on it and talks from a standing position to the audience. He indicates he does not want to be around the Adulteress; however, he is an attractive man and likes her attentions.)
I'm what you would call the satisfied husband. I have had a happy marriage, mainly because my wife works so hard at it. I admit that. I am the husband of the Proverbs 31 wife. She consistently amazes me. Actually (he laughs) I am amazed she chose me. I do not deserve her, and everybody knows it! You know the proverb that says, He who finds a good wife receives a blessing from the Lord. Well, the Lord has blessed me and blessed me for years with this woman. Let me tell you about her and about our life together. My wife truly has a noble character. The basis of her character is that she fears the Lord. Together we worship and obey the God of Israel. All our life together she has brought me good. Never has she brought me harm or shame. My total confidence is in her.
The whole town knows that this couple, the Satisfied Husband and the Noble Wife, enjoy each other. They do not commit adultery. They keep themselves for each other alone. They rejoice in each other. Their children are blessed. He compliments her and calls her a graceful deer. They work at their marriage by saving themselves for each other. He is captivated by her love!
(Waking up. Yawning. Sloppy.)
It's when I'm alone, when everything is quiet that I see strange things and my mind imagines confusing things. That's when I really need another drink. I like drinking so much that when I get in a fight, I don't even know I've been hit.
(To the Satisfied Husband; belligerent, pointing a finger, getting in his face.) You have your nice house and your big car and your good job, but are you happy? I say you're a hypocrite! I'll laugh in your face and mock you! I have my bottle here and it's all I need. Yeah, I'm happier than you are.
(She has a loud, abrasive voice and an undisciplined, uncouth manner. She winks, motions with her hands, plots seeds of evil in the thinking of all who hear. Her tone is arrogant. Throughout the play, she and Gossip are friendly. They lead each other to various characters.)
Hey, Simple Youth! I call out to you! What's the value of discipline, I ask you? Nothing! Every person puts on trousers one leg at a time. There's no difference between us. None. (She plays with Simple Youth's baseball cap.)
You know me. I am at the door of my house, my big house. I don't like my neighbor, Lady Wisdom. We happen to reside in the same neighborhood at the top of the hill. She acts as if she's the only elite one, but I'm elite, too.
I call out to all that my way is the best. The easy way is the best way. I call out to all who are simple to come to me. I have special favors for those who lack judgment. Come up to my house! I'll really show you how to live.
We'll laugh at how hard others work and how much effort they exert. And for what? For nothing! Follow my way and be rich. I know how to get rich quick. I know how to win the Lottery! Look at my big house. I'll show you how stolen water is sweet to the taste and food eaten in secret is delicious!
Oh, I hate all who speak with such pride and arrogance! Her speech is perverse! Her behavior is that of a scoundrel and villain, for she winks, motions with her hands, and plants evil and deceit in hearts. Wherever Lady Folly goes, she stirs up dissension!
Noon (Dance #2)
(Lady Folly and Lady Wisdom look at each other with distaste and hatred. The characters do another "dance" in that they come to center stage, clap hands, turn, and go to other places. All characters take part. The Sluggard and Drunkard burp loudly and enjoy it. Gossip goes down. Lady Folly goes down. Satisfied Husband goes up to the ladder, stage right. Drunkard goes to sleep or snoozes on the bench of three chairs, upstage.)
(He yawns, belches, rubs his face. His shirt hangs out. He is dishevelled and has bad breath.)
I'm Slothful the Sluggard. It's eight o'clock. Too early to get up! I don't care about getting money. I like the easy life. I like to go to KFC. I certainly don't like working on the farm during the harvest! That's hot work! I prefer sleeping.
Once I had a job as a courier. But it was hot work and my boss wanted me to hurry. It's not in my nature to hurry. I stopped for coffees and met my friends. They were right along the way. But my boss fired me and said I was like vinegar to his teeth and smoke to his eyes!
(He goes to Lady Folly and she comforts him. They walk from stage right to stage left.)
I crave a big car. I need a big car. I deserve a big car. Life is terribly unfair to me that I don't have one! So often my way seems to be blocked with thorns. Oh, woe! Life is terribly unfair to me!
Truly as a door turns on its hinges, Sluggard turns on his bed! (Exasperated) Go to the ant, Sluggard! Learn the ways of the ant and be wise!
What you say, Sluggard, makes me want to keep talking about my wife. Everybody knows my wife enjoys hard work. She has an amazing energy level and cannot be still. She never eats the bread of idleness. She spends her time working instead of gossiping. She looks forward to Monday mornings!
As a seamstress, she is well-known in Potch. She makes garments of wool for winter and linen for summer. She enjoys working with her hands. Merchants in town know her as one who looks for bargains of good quality. They save their best for her. We at home eat well because she knows how to cook. We laugh together about this proverb from America: Kissin' don't last but cookin' do.
(She moves around like a busybody constantly.) I think it's my duty in life to repeat a matter over and over throughout Potchefstroom. After all, people should know the truth about their friends and neighbors, don't you think?
Sometimes I betray a confidence, but then people really should know what's happening here in Potchefstroom, don't you think?
I am the Gossip. And I do my job!
Truly, the power of death and life resides in the tongue. Gossip spreads death. But my mouth speaks what is true. My lips detest wickedness. All—yes, all!—the words of my mouth are just. Not one of them is crooked or perverse!
Early Afternoon (Dance #3)
(The characters "dance" again by coming to center stage, clapping hands, forming two lines and making alternate moves. They smile. They extend their hands upward and outward from their bodies. The Teddy bear is tossed between the lines. The characters turn and go to different parts of the stage.)
I cannot stand staying at home. There's nothing to do! So I dress up and survey the crowd. I go to street corners. I go to the Bult. I'll kiss you in public and call your name again and again! Let my words captivate you! I know you can walk on hot coals! Your feet will not be scorched! Who will ever know if we sleep together? Your wife is as dense as a doorpost and my husband is away all the time! (She plays with the tie of Satisfied Husband. She playfully pulls the tie and him after her. Intrigued, he follows her.)
The man who commits adultery lacks judgment; whoever commits adultery destroys himself. (Satisfied Husband "wakes up" and hurriedly leaves the Adulteress. He quickly puts distance between them on the stage.) His life from then on will be filled with blows and disgrace; his companion becomes shame. The jealous husband will never be his friend or business associate. No amount of money can repair what adultery takes from a marriage.
You know what I'm really good at? Tearing down things others build. I like the easy way! Vroom! It's gone! Takes no time at all. Then I can go back and sleep. Yeah. I like deep sleep.
You know, I like sleeping better than eating, yeah, better than eating. Sometimes I'll be eating and then won't even bring my fork to my mouth. It takes too much effort.
Harvest is such a bore. I refuse to plough my father's field. He can do it himself. He was born to be a farmer. He does work I don't enjoy. See these hands (he holds up his hands)? I don't want calluses! I refuse to let my hands get calluses! I refuse to work!
Besides, there could be a lion outside in the field! A fierce lion along the road I travel! After all this is Africa. Besides, I could be murdered in the streets—even in Potchefstroom!
Who cares—I certainly don't—that thorns overrun my field and my stone wall collapsed when a truck slammed into it? I like to fold my hands in rest and take a little nap. People say poverty will come on me like a robber, but I don't believe them.
At the end, Sluggard, your life will end with a groan. You'll wake up one day and realize how worthless your life has been. You'll say, "How I hated discipline! How my heart spurned correction! I have come to the brink of utter ruin—and everybody in Potchefstroom knows it! They've been laughing at me for years!"
I despise Lady Wisdom. I hate everything she says. I hate her knowledge. I delight in airing my own opinions. My mother says I have brought her grief because I am a foolish daughter, but I do not believe her.
Late Afternoon (Dance # 4)
(Characters do another "dance" of clapping and circles. They separate and move around and up to where they are comfortable. Lady Wisdom ascends the high ladder again. Simple Youth stays on the main level. Adulteress continues to flirt, but to no avail.)
(He may move around on his lines all over stage. He sings some of the words, for he has a great voice!) My wife leaves our bed before first light. Her duties begin early. She prepares our breakfast and makes sure our help in the house and on the farm eat a good breakfast, too.
Yesterday she left our small holding early for the Cape because she wants to buy property in the wine district. An agent called her and told her about a small holding near Stellenbosch. The irrigation is good and the access to the main highway is, too. She bought the vineyard quickly and will expand it. Right now she manages our multiple fields and works at her books far into the night.
The light is so often on in our home that our friends driving by joke she never sleeps. I'm in bed by 22:00! I tell them my wife has a lot of energy. She works on her sewing projects at night. She weaves beautiful rugs and wall hangings. Her work hangs here in the rector's office at the university. It also hangs in the government buildings in Pretoria.
I love to take her to Neptune's, for she turns heads. Her outfits, which she makes herself, are usually some shade of purple. I tell her she is a royal wife. A quilt she made covers our bed.
Her volunteer work extends to the poor. She works in an outreach to HIV/AIDS victims. She spends an afternoon a week ministering to their needs—feeding them and bathing them. She says she feels close to God when she does this for other human beings.
Lots of times more people need to be involved in a quarrel. After all, it concerns more people than just two! Everybody is kinfolk in Potchefstroom! So I just keep a quarrel going until everybody has had his or her say!
I know I'm for equality! I talk about my brothers, too! After all, I am the Gossip! I do my job well!
I like your attitude, Gossip! We can be friends, because I like to hear all the dirt on people! I've heard that your mother is very bitter. She says she is sorry she gave birth to you! She says that listening to you is like living with a constantly dripping water pipe. But I like you! Let's wander all over town and eat like pigs!
(He has an incredibly loud belch. It startles everybody and embarrasses Lady Wisdom. He is belligerent in attitude.)
I'm the Drunkard. Let me tell you my story. I have so much woe. I have so much sorrow. Just give me space or I'll fight you. I'm used to fights—see these bruises? Look at my eyes—they'll tell you that I can drink any one of you under the table.
Yeah. We'll see who can linger over wine or the hard stuff the longest!
Drunkard, you have rejected me for years. You have spurned my call and my rebukes to you over the years. So when calamity overtakes you, as it surely will, when it sweeps over you like a whirlwind, you will be devastated. Then you will look for me, but I will hide from you. You will not find me. You have hated knowledge and do not choose to fear the Lord and so you will eat the fruit of your own schemes—and die.
I'll admit it freely: much of my respect in Potch and much of our mutual wealth as a couple comes from her work. I'm a magistrate and, yes, respected here in Potch. My job gives me standing and responsibility in the community.
I am able to do my job and devote my whole heart to it because of my wife. I trust her completely. My love for her grows daily. As we age together, I see her lovely face as exhibiting strength and dignity. When she speaks, I listen, for she is wise.
Our children, and we have seven, look happy. They do well in school. They have good manners. Last week we celebrated her birthday. She turned 50. During the speeches, our children told stories expressing how much they love her. I praised her—though in measure because she looked embarrassed.
When she spoke, she held my hand and praised God for his goodness to us. She quickly led us in a hymn of thanksgiving. That's the way she is. She gives God honor. But I am seeing that he delights to honor her.
(He bangs on the table, speaks loudly, and gestures with his hands and arms. He points to the other characters. He pauses frequently for emphasis.)
Hey, guys! I've listened to all of you! I see your lifestyles! I'm making a choice! Thank you, Lady Wisdom, for the invitation to your banquet. I accept! I want to learn your ways!
(Lady Wisdom is thrilled. She pauses and speaks slowly. She extends her invitation one more time.)
To all of you I say this: Life offers you a choice between Wisdom and Folly. I urge you with all power in me to choose my instruction instead of silver. Value my knowledge rather than the choicest of gold.
(Lady Folly reacts with disdain. She also gestures to everybody. Adulteress, Sluggard, Drunkard, Gossip slowly join her by the stairs during this last scene. They speak and then join her. They try to lure Simple Youth one more time, each with a key line. Simple Youth gradually becomes more and more certain that his choice of Lady Wisdom's way is the best. He stands taller and taller as he refuses each character's way.)
Simple Youth, I'll show you the easy way!
Simple Youth, why work hard? We can tear down things others build!
Simple Youth....... (He rejects her and she is offended.)
Ah, let's go have a drink! (Simple Youth says no, but with compassion, for he sees Drunkard as a very sad character. Drunkard staggers away.)
Simple Youth! People will talk about you if you go to her banquet!
(These characters—Gossip, Lady Folly, Adulteress, Sluggard, and Drunkard—leave the stage and "freeze" with their backs to the stage yet visible from the audience.)
(Simple Youth and Satisfied Husband remain with Lady Wisdom. They walk with her slowly from upstage centre stage to downstage centre stage.)
Ah, Simple Youth, the wisdom I give you is more precious than rubies. Nothing you can possibly desire compares with my gift of wisdom! In me, reside counsel and sound judgment. I give understanding and power. By me and me alone, rulers make just laws and kings reign. By me, nobles rule the earth. With me are enduring riches and honour. I love those who love me. Those who seek me, find me. Yes. I love those who love me. Those who seek me, find me.
Robin Gallaher Branch (c)
This play was published as an article. Branch, Robin Gallaher. "Teaching the Old Testament Book of Proverbs Via a Play," Christian Higher Education 4.1 (2005): 57-69.
Robin Gallaher Branch, Sterling College, Sterling, Kansas
Comments on this article? email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Citation: Robin Gallaher Branch, " Life's Choices: A Play Based on Eight Characters in Proverbs," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=488