Last Hours of the Abbey of Cassino
A Play in Two Scenes
by Alfred de Grazia
Copyright © 2001 by Alfred de Grazia
In the Fall of 1943, the American Fifth Army, reinforced by units of the British Eighth Army, the French Expeditionary Force, an Indian Division, a New Zealand Division, an Italian Brigade and a Polish Division, unleashed a series of attacks against German units commanding the heights of Monte Cassino, where stood one of the oldest and most famous Abbeys of the Roman Catholic Church. The Allied Commanders and Governments pledged not to direct fire upon the Abbey and the German High Command promised not to use the premises of the Abbey for military purposes. The temptation to violate their pledges was great, for the mountain surveyed the main route into Central Italy and the Prize of Rome, now in the hands of the Germans and neo-Fascist collaborators. An international and religious diplomatic and propaganda struggle had proceeded for months beforehand and continued thereafter for years.
The drama opens at mid-morning on a January day of the year 1944. Its two scenes play at a rocky high place with two tall open crevices through which actors can come and go. Passage is also afforded from left and right stage. Light from the morning sun casts shadows from the Northeast. Artillery fire (booming and whistling) is almost continuous from beginning to end, except for a sudden pause when a flight of bombers enters the action, and then the cannonade resumes redoubled as the play ends.
Dramatis personae consist of:
American Second Lieutenant of Artillery, observing fire, slightly built, speaks in Boston accent. Cleanly dressed in combat uniform with tank boots, carrying carbine and holstered automatic handgun, with binoculars and map holder slung from shoulder.
American Corporal of Artillery observing fire, tall, large, cleanly dressed and armed like his lieutenant.
American Sergeant of Infantry of the 36th Division, square physique, disheveled, carrying a semi-automatic submachine gun.
Two German newly captured ordinary soldiers of the 44th Infantry Division, clothes smeared with dirt.
A dark-skinned French Moroccan soldier, disheveled, armed with Garand rifle with bayonet fixed, dressed in American uniform and French helmet, but also wearing a burnoose and a long knife, who is in charge of the prisoners.
The prisoners are bareheaded. The others wear helmets.
A litter bearing an Indian wounded soldier in British garb and gear is carried through a left-side crevice of rock and across the rocky stage and out, trailed by a limping heavily bandaged Indian soldier supported by a comrade, also moving off stage.
The Lieutenant and Corporal emerge from the same left crevice. Both have their binoculars up as they pause and back, pause and back, onto center stage.
Corporal (turning around to face the lieutenant and therefore the audience): What's the difference, Lieutenant, between a thousand bombers and a thousand tons of bombs?
Lieutenant: Nothing much. Either way it's the biggest blasting of a single target ever. Where did you hear about it, it's a secret -- don't tell me.
Corporal: There's another hit - see it, on the third floor window left side, almost at the end, you can still see the dust blowing out.
Lieutenant: I see it. That's 29 windows that have been hit at least once each, about one out of eight. All against orders.
Corporal: Not counting the holes in the walls.
Lieutenant: Nothing is moving inside. So what are they shooting at?
Corporal: Course they'd avoid the windows.
Lieutenant: That prisoner told me as how the priests and Italian civilians are in the cellars. Except those trying to carry valuable pieces down from above.
Corporal: No Germans, huh?
Lieutenant: Nope. But that's not the way they're talking at Headquarters. They're saying that you can see enemy helmets and binoculars flashing in the afternoon sun, and sniping, and there's no other way except from the Abbey to observe our outer positions unless it's the grounds around, but the grounds are being blasted all the time.
Corporal: The gunners are going wacky staring at the easy targets.
Lieutenant: Yeah, I know, and they's got more shells than they could ever fire. They're dying to be turned loose on the place. And writing home about it.
Corporal: It's getting close to a mutiny.
Lieutenant: So Army wants a report. What can I say? The damned monster looks like its been slumbering there forever. In the sunshine, its splendid, like the gates of heaven. Under the moon, it's sweet and sacred. In the foggy frosty dawn it's a scary spectre. What a crime to kill it. It seems like the Monastery is conducting the war, to hell with the armies. It's King Kong.
Corporal: You sound like a poet, Lieutenant.
Lieutenant: I don't care if I do. The facts are in the Report.
Corporal: I don't think they'll believe anything you say, Lieutenant. The Abbey is as doomed as King Kong. Ending with the warplanes, remember, shooting at King Kong hanging to the spire of the Empire State Building?
Lieutenant: Well, it does bother me as a Catholic, too, to wreck a grand work dedicated to God. And there are a couple of hundred priests and Italian civilians trapped inside -- if anybody cares -- mothers, babies, old folks, maybe Germans in hiding, maybe even some G .I.'s from the attacks that failed.
Corporal: (He turns to the crevice, and looks through his binoculars again.) What a magnificent monument! They say its art collection is worth many millions, priceless, irreplaceable.
Lieutenant: They can say what they please, Corporal, but it makes no difference. When the newspapers and home folks get hysterical about the lives of our American boys -- well that's it.
Lieutenant: They say the Pope is the one who's keeping Gen. Clarke from giving the order.
Corporal: I bet the Germans want us to destroy the thing. It will make them look good. American barbarians. Especially killing off a couple of hundred civilians and monks seeking shelter.
A mild buzzing noise can be heard.
Lieutenant : (Pointing.) There's that reconnaissance plane again. He's probably reporting that the place is overrun with enemy soldiers. Of course, the Germans must be entrenched all around the fringes of the Monastery grounds.
Talk about the aching artillery; the Air Force is yearning to let loose on the place. It's about the only target in Italy they haven't hit so far, that and the Pope's Palace.
Corporal: Hey, look at that, Jesus Christ, our guys are even firing at their own plane.
Lieutenant: Dammit, you're right. That's our shit in the sky!
Corporal: Bad shots, must be the 532nd. There he goes, Lucky Pierre.
Lieutenant: I think these guys are convincing each other. It's getting to be a mass hysteria. I don't dare to argue with anybody about it. From what I've heard, General Clarke hasn't the guts to stop it, neither General Alexander. And it's gone back to Eisenhower and Churchill and Roosevelt even. The Pope and I ask God for the answer, and He ain't talking either. "Give us the Facts," they say, but don't mean it -- the fex, the fex, the fex, as my wife would say, aw shit, what's she up to now, I wonder. (He looks sad.)
Corporal: (embarrassed) Lieutenant, it's true that Air Power can destroy any stronghold, ain't it?
Lieutenant: That's what the fly-boys say. They're daffy, too. But you know, even if they could bomb Cassino to the ground, with the help of the artillery, then what? The mass of rubble will make a great line of defense for the Germans to take over. There's nobody then who can blame them. Once the damage is done, the living sacred value of the place is gone.
Strictly speaking, I can't say this in my report because it's not a fact..not yet. It's a prediction.
Corporal: Should I go now, Lieutenant?
Lieutenant: Yeah. Get going. Give Colonel Hoskins my report and tell him I'll give him another report after dark. Maybe I'll pick out some lights. I'll be here when you return. Leave me a can of pork and beans where the jeep's parked.
Remember these rocks. Don't get lost. I don't want to have to spend the night here. I have a feeling that the end of this all is close at hand.
(Exit the Corporal to left of stage. A moment later from the second right-hand crevice backstage emerge two tired-looking German prisoners, one limping but scornful, the second frightened and obviously in shock, prodded along by a Moroccan French soldier, and paced by an irate expostulating American sergeant speaking in a Texas accent.)
Sergeant: (Pleading urgently.) Look here, savvy, Francais, I'll take them over from you, comprenay? You can go back to your outfit, or wherever the hell you want to go, comprenay. I take prisoniers to M.P.'s. No more trouble for you.
Moroccan: (Shaking head, uneasy, uncomprehending)
Sergeant: (In a cunning, persuasive tone.)Aw come on now. No more problem. I take prisoners. You want ears, you take ears.
(He spots the American Lieutenant.)
Look at these sons-of-bitches, Lieutenant. They should be shot. We been taking fire from them all night long. Caught a couple of casualties, a buddy of mine too. I'll take care of them.
Lieutenant: (Cooly, but kindly.) Did you expect them to blow you kisses? War is all about killing each other. You're not supposed to take it personally.
Sergeant: (Gives him an angry look and turns again to Moroccan) I take care of them. Adios, emshee, go home. You need cigarettes? He pulls out two packs of cigarettes from his pants side pocket and some money and gives them to the Moroccan, who accepts them, grinning now. Go ahaid now, get going, don't worry, no problem, I take care. He brandishes his gun and waves off the Moroccan, who, sheepishly, turns back into the crevice, but peers back again to see what is happening next before he disappears.
Lieutenant: (Bewildered, uncomprehending look on his face, then startled into a reaction.) What the hell do you mean, Sergeant? What do you think you are doing? Give that man back his prisoners. (But meanwhile the Moroccan has disappeared.)
Sergeant: (fiercely) They're my prisoners now, Lieutenant, and I can do what I want with them. From the artillery aren't you? Well this is infantry territory. That's the way things are here, see? Follow that Goume there and you'll be on your belly in fifty yards. Follow me (smirking savagely) and you'll see some dead Germans.
Lieutenant: Are you drunk, Sergeant?
Sergeant: No I ain't drunk. If I was drunk, I'd get the hell out of this war and get me a little whore's nest in Napoli. But long as I'm in it, I'm gonna do the right thing and get rid of enemies whenever I can.
Lieutenant: Sergeant, stand up at attention and speak like a soldier.
Sergeant: You're crazy, you lil shavetail. What's standing up straight got to do with war? Stand up straight where I bin and you get your head blown off.
Lieutenant: Look, I'm trying to tell you, Sergeant, that you're way out of line. Threatening to kill these prisoners is going to get you into more trouble.
Sergeant: What you mean, threaten? -- I'm gonna kill the bastards. They been shooting at us all night. My guys get killed, nobody sleeps, we're in mud up to our asses. Man we gotta end this fucking war. We got to blow them to pieces. Cut em up. There they are up in that fucking abbey looking down our throats, telling their guns, hey, there's a beautiful kleine basket of Americans we can give to the Pope for a New Year present. He's our freund, he says we belong here -- anyway, we ain't here, we just look like we're here. And we got a lot of property to pertect, especially paintings worth a million dollars each.
Lieutenant: You're imagining things, Sergeant: I've been watching all day and there's been no sign of what you say are Germans in the Abbey.
Sergeant: Shit you say! He gestures with his tommy gun at the Germans who shrink away. I bin in this man's army for twelve years. After all the time I put in, I got only one wish: I wanna die fucking.
Lieutenant: Hear this, Sergeant: you know very well about the Geneva Convention regarding treatment of prisoners. You have to allow a man to give up, and you have to treat him well and get him out of the combat zone as soon as possible. If you don't do that, you're committing a crime, and that's what you are doing now, and you're about to do worse.
Sergeant: You said it, Lieutenant. So git out of my way, and let me proceed on my little personal mission . He jerks his gun at the prisoners urging them toward the second crevice.
German Prisoner: The defiant-looking prisoner has been following the quarrel attentively, and now exclaims in alarm. He wants to kill us! It cannot be right!
Sergeant: Listen to that sneaky bastard. He knows what we been saying all along. (He raises his gun menacingly.)
Lieutenant: Stop, Sergeant!
Sergeant: Try to stop me.
Lieutenant: You're under arrest.
Sergeant: Tough tittie. You're in worse trouble than I am, pertecting the enemy, letting our American boys be shot to hell by a bunch of murderers under the pertection of the Pope and our half-ass Generals.
Lieutenant: That's enough. I have the right to shoot you for disobeying a direct order on the battlefield.
Sergeant, I warn you!
Sergeant: Nothin doing. Get going, you heinie bastards. The lieutenant is gonna pray for you.
He pokes them toward the left rock crevice. As they reluctantly move, he coldly lifts his tommy gun and begins to fire bullets into their backs. The Lieutenant, horrified, draws his automatic, yells "Halt!, Halt!", and then shoots the Sergeant, who at the moment, falling, turns his sputtering gun to the L:ieutenant, who drops dead.
The Sergeant crawls, barely alive, trailing blood and gasping, toward the Lieutenant.. Just then is heard the drone of airplanes, many, many, louder and louder until the hall is drowned in the sound. The dying Sergeant looks up and waves at them, then collapses. The artillery resumes a total volleying, filling the air with its whistling shells.
From behind the rock crevice on the right, the Moroccan soldier reenters quietly. He looks down upon the bodies, then walks to the Sergeant, kicks off his helmet contemptuously. There is no response. He reaches down to search his pockets, taking the usual litter of money, cigarettes, a pack of playing cards, a pen... Then he straightens up, looks around, draws his long knife and deliberately slices off the Sergeant's right ear, stuffing it into his first aid pouch. Quickly he wipes his knife blade on the corpse's trousers, shrouds himself more tightly in his burnoose, and stealthily slips out through the crevice.
The sounds of battle have meanwhile reached a peak unbearable to the audience, but now begin to diminish and fade into a background,quasi-musical misericordia that blends the whistling, droning and explosions into a humanoid synthesized sound with a thudding drum background, as stage lights darken and the curtain closes.