Rome. An open porch with statues of the gods, vessels with incense, a view of the Apennines. In the centre a table is spread with three couches round it. ADAM is SERGIOLUS, LUCIFER is MILO. Also present are CATULUS and other revellers. EVE is JULIA who, together with HIPPIA and CLUVIA, other ladies of pleasure, is appropriately clad and enjoying herself. There is a gladiatoral combat in progress on a raised platform. Slaves wait on the company, musicians play on flutes. It is dusk, deepening into night.

Look, Sergiolus, how lithe and skilful
That scarlet ribboned gladiator is.
I’ll lay odds on the man to beat his rival.

No, by Hercules.

      By Hercules? But why?
Who here among us still believes in gods?
Swear by Julia, then I might believe you.

By Julia then -

      Your vow has sure foundations:
Now one false idol makes way for another.
But how are we to understand this vow?
You swear by her beauty, by your love of her,
Or rather by her faithfulness to you?

All charm is transient - it therefore follows
What fascinates today is dull tomorrow,
A plainer woman will entice you from her
By force of her enchanting novelty.

I meant her faithfulness. What man has squandered
More on his mistress than I on her?

      You clown,
You think you could remain entwined for ever?
And say it should be possible, could you,
Yes you, - insatiable in your desires,
Always flitting from woman to woman, finding
Some shred of pleasure in this one or the other,
All joy and beauty unattainably
And magically flitting for ever before you -
Could you be certain that some whim of hers,
One idle thought would not charm her away?
A gladiator’s lacerated muscles…

Yes, yes, you’re right - but no more, Hippia.
Why Tantalus like, are we drawn to pleasures,
When we neither have the strength of Hercules,
Nor the Protean knack of changing shape,
And a wretched slave after a week of torture
Finds such enjoyment in one hour of freedom
His master vainly yearns for it. Is pleasure,
Like water, refreshment for the weary, but
Fatal to those who dive into its rapids?

A splendid lecture on morality,
Spiced with wine and pillowed on soft breasts -
But as to your wager? -

      If I should lose the bet
Then Julia is yours.

      And if you win?

Your horse is mine.

      You take her back next month,
And if you don’t I’ll throw her in my fishpond.

Look, dear Julia, at this nice fat fish:
Eat up, eat up, you’ll soon be food for others.

Will not this ugly maggot feast on you?
Whoever is alive let him rejoice,
And if he can’t rejoice then let him laugh.
She drinks

ADAM to the gladiator
Now mind to do your best! -

      Fight like a soldier!
Catulus’s gladiator falls, and begging for his life raises his fingers. ADAM wants to give him the sign of mercy but CATULUS holds his hand down and tightening his fist gives the gladiator the thumbs down
Recipe ferrum! Cowardly mongrel. I have
Sufficient slaves, I’m not a miser. Who,
Dear ladies, would begrudge you this excitement
When kisses taste so much the sweeter for it;
A little spilt blood sharpens our desire.
In the meantime the gladiator has been killed by his opponent

The horse is mine. Come Julia, embrace me.
Kindly remove that corpse - and now, you dancers!
Perform some comic interlude for us,
We’ve had enough blood for today.
The corpse is removed and dancers occupy the platform

      Come, Cluvia,
Come here to me. I can’t look on for long
While others are embracing.

      And we, Hippia,
Should we follow their example, do you think?
First lick your lips, ensure they are not poisoned.
That’s right. Now let’s enjoy ourselves, my dear.

Your heart is thumping so! What can it be?
I cannot rest, it beats so in my ear.
They whisper

Hear the fool still blabbering of her “heart”.

Look here, my sweet, I make no claim on yours,
Do with it what you like but don’t tell me,
A good hot kiss will do for me quite nicely.

How generous, darling! I raise my glass to you.
She drinks

That’s good, dear Cluvia, but don’t remove
Those tender arms and yielding little breasts.
Just look, my garland’s slipping off my head.
To the dancers
Ah what a splendid pirouette that was,
Voluptuous fire and pleasure all combined!

I don’t like competition - if you talk
To them again I’ll cover up your eyes.
I cannot squeeze a good word out of you.
Indicating LUCIFER
I’d rather you looked at that sour-faced wretch.
What good are girls to him, however pretty,
If he doesn’t take the slightest notice of them
And leaves them snoring while he looks about him
With cold eyes and a supercilious smile
On the hundred sweet and idiotic things
That give our feast its flavour.

Indeed it is a face to throw a chill
Into a choir of poets. A man who resists
The spell of the moment and will not allow
His spirit to be swept off by the tide
Is good for nothing and should stay at home.

To tell the truth I fear the poor man has
Contracted the Black Death which has destroyed
A good part of the city.

      Away with all
This talk of gloom. A ribald song for us.
Whoever knows a good one, let us hear it.

HIPPIA sings
A man can never have
Too much of wine or love;
Of wine there is profusion,
Each yields its flavour, thrives
On sweet intoxication,
Like sunlight on old graves
They gild our barren lives.
A man can never have
Too much of wine or love;
Of girls there is profusion,
Each casts her spell and thrives,
On sweet intoxication,
Like sunlight on old graves
They gild our barren lives.

Precisely so. Now Cluvia, your turn.

CLUVIA sings
How foolish they were long ago:
When a handsome rogue laid low
Widowed Lucretia in her bed
Her lips were cold, her lust was dead,
No whoreson pleasure could she feel
But stuck herself instead with steel.

The world grows wiser by the minute,
Rejoice therefore that we live in it.

How foolish they were long ago:
Poor Brutus from his house must go,
For arms his luxuries desert
And don the stinking trooper’s shirt,
For ragged people give his blood
And perish duly in the mud.

The world grows wiser by the minute,
Rejoice therefore that we live in it.

How foolish they were long ago:
Brave men perceive a spectral glow
And call it sacred. What a farce!
Were such a lunatic to pass
We could dependably rely on
Him to fatten the circus lion.

The world grows wiser by the minute,
Rejoice therefore that we live in it.

Ah Cluvia, you’ve outsung Hippia.
I’d love to have composed that verse myself.

Why are you moping, Julia? Why not sing?
Everybody else is in good spirits.
Don’t you enjoy lying on my breast?

Oh certainly Sergiolus, and yet -
Such merriment has always left me serious.
I feel whatever laughs cannot be real.
The cup of happiness, however sweet,
Contains one drop of inexpressible pain.
Perhaps we apprehend such perfect moments
Are flowers, doomed to wither.

      I feel it too.

Especially when I hear songs and verses,
I am aware of more than words, but tides
That pulse beneath them, rocking like a boat -
I feel as if I lay within a dream:
The swaying sound brings back some distant past
When I was innocent and playful as a child
Under the palms, lost among the sunbeams,
Aware of noble voices in my soul.
Forgive me, this is nothing but the spell
Of silly dreams. - Kiss me again - I’m waking.

No more of dancers or of songs. I’m sick
Of this eternal sea of sweetness. My heart
Requires something bitter for a change.
Some wormwood in my wine, a stinging lip,
A sense of danger hovering about me.
The dancers depart. A cry of pain outside
What is that cry that cuts me to the heart?

They’re crucifying a few lunatics
Who dream of justice and fraternity.

It serves them right - why can’t they sit at home
Enjoying themselves and forget the world?
Why interfere in other people’s business?

The beggar wants the rich man for his brother,
But let them once change places and he’d do
His share of crucifying.

      Leave this subject -
We ought to laugh at misery and death,
At plagues which wreak such havoc in a town
And all those tricks of fate the gods dish out.
A new cry

ADAM to himself
I feel as if I lay within a dream,
The swaying sound brings back a distant past…
Aware of noble voices in my soul…
Your very words, I think, my Julia?

It has grown dark in the meantime. A funeral procession with flutes, torches and wailing women passes before the courtyard. The company falls momentarily silent

LUCIFER bursting into laughter
I see you’ve lost your humour in this gloom,
Have you run out of wine or lost your wit
That even sourpuss here has had enough?
One of us here is frightened, it appears,
Or else converted.

ADAM throwing a glass at his head
      Damn you if you think so!

Wait! I’ll invite a new guest to the party -
Perhaps he will revive your flagging spirits.
Look sharp, you slaves, and show the fellow in,
That man who travels by the light of torches. -
We only want to offer him a drink.
They bring in the corpse in an open coffin and put it on the table. The mourners remain in the background. LUCIFER raises his glass to the dead man
Drink up! To you today, to me tomorrow!

Perhaps you would prefer a kiss?

      Embrace him.
I dare you to steal the obol From his mouth.

If I can kiss you, dear, then why not him?
She kisses the corpse. ST PETER steps forward from the ranks of the mourners

Stop it! You are sucking in the plague.
All recoil in horror and rise from their places

The plague! How horrible! Get rid of him!

You wicked generation! Race of cowards
And tramplers upon virtue - mock at God!
While fortune smiles on you, you are like flies
Importunately buzzing in the sunlight,
But when some peril hammers at your door,
Or when God’s mighty finger touches you
You shrink in fear and huddle in despair.
Do you not feel the weight of retribution
Across your back? But look, just look around you -
The city perishes and foreign hordes
Tread down your golden harvest. Rules of Law
Disintegrate, there’s no commanding voice
And no-one listens. Robbery and murder
Are striding unashamed about your households,
On their heels follow grey anxiety
And terror. No help, no comfort, either
In earth or heaven. Will intoxication
Spirit away that deep sense of foreboding
That speaks within your heart and vainly urges
You to finer goals? For I hardly need
To add that satisfaction is beyond you,
That ecstasy awakes only disgust.
You look round terrified, with trembling lips,
But all in vain. Your faith in the old gods
Is quite exhausted. First they petrify
Then turn to dust,
The statues of the gods disintegrate
      and no new idol comes
To raise them from the rubble. Look around you,
And see what wreaks more havoc in the town
Than pestilence, is mightier than the plague -
A thousand waken from soft pillows, seeking
The wilderness of Thebais in order
To populate it with a tribe of hermits
Endeavouring to find some new excitement,
Some keener stimulation for numbed senses -
Some generation! you shall pass away
In the vast purification of the world.

HIPPIA collapsing before the table
Oh God have mercy! What dread agony,
Cold sweats and fires of Orcus - it’s the plague,
The pestilence is on me - I am lost!
Oh will not one among you come to help me,
You with whom I shared my every pleasure?

To you today, to me tomorrow, dearest. -

In that case kill me or be cursed by me.

ST PETER stepping up to her
Forgive rather than curse him, O my daughter,
And I will help you, as will that great God,
The eternal God of blessed charity.
Aspire unto Him - with water now
I wash contamination from your soul,
And cleansed it flies to him. -
He baptizes her with water from a dish on the table

      Oh, father, I’m at peace.
She dies

And I’ll set out for Thebais today,
The corruption of the world disgusts me now.

Wait, Catulus, I am coming with you.
They leave together. ADAM, absorbed in thought, steps downstage, followed by EVE

Still here, my Julia? What can you want here
Where death has destroyed all forms of happiness?

Is not my place beside you, where you are?
Sergiolus, what wealth of noble feelings
Might you have found hidden in my bosom,
That bosom where you sought such fleeting pleasures?

And in my own heart. A pity it is so.
What shame to die in misery and meanness,
Continually to suffer. If God lives,
He kneels and raises his hands to heaven
If He has but a thought for us and rules us,
Then let Him bring new people, new ideals
Into the world, and pour a finer blood
Into degenerate veins, that nobler men
May break the mould and strive beyond themselves
To higher things. Oh everywhere I feel
Such shabbiness, and we have no strength left
To start anew. O Lord, please hear my prayer!
The Cross, in a glory of light, appears in the sky. Burning towns are glimpsed behind the mountains. Barbarian tribes swarm down. A hymn is heard in the distance

LUCIFER to himself
The sight sends a few shivers up my spine.
But is it not my task to strive with man?
Whatever I cannot perform he can.
I’ve witnessed similar capers in my time,
And once the glory fades and all is lost
There still remains behind the bloody Cross.

The Lord has hearkened to you. Look around -
Degenerate earth is straining for new birth.
These warriors, these savages in bearskin,
Who fling their brands against your shining cities,
Whose cavalry are tramping out the vintage
Of your past, who turn neglected temples
Into stables, they bring fresh stores of blood
To supplement your thin anaemic veins,
And those who in the circus chant their hymns
While ravening tigers tear out their intestines
Announce a new ideal of brotherhood,
The freedom of the individual soul. -
Ideas that roll like thunder through the world.

I feel it, yes, I feel it. Soul disdains
Mere sluggish pleasures and soft counterpanes:
There is another pleasure set apart,
A joy in the slow draining of the heart.

So let it be your aim: to God the Glory,
To you the labour. The single soul is free
To bring to fullness all that lies within it.
And only one commandment binds it: Love.

Rise, to battle, rise then in the fervour
Of new faith, and create another world
Of which the fair flower shall be chivalry,
Its altar poetry, and raised beside it
The high exalted feminine ideal.
He leans on ST PETER and departs

How seemly for a man, how brave it is
To enthuse over impossibilities.
Such pious tendencies please the Creator,
And I’m in favour too - despair comes later.
He follows him