“A Universal Question” by Kathleen Maule Holen. Previously performed at the Jersey City Theatre Center in 2022 as part of a readers theatre presentation of short plays on the topic of strength.
A UNIVERSAL QUESTION
A short play
By Kathleen Maule Holen
A wise sea turtle tries to help a young man find an answer to the question, “Why are we here?” and suggests that the source of human survival is our ability to take care of each other.
COLE: A young man looking for answers.
TURTLE: A wise sea turtle trying to be helpful.
A moonlit spring night; present day
A deserted ocean beach.
Set the stage as a beach at night with moonlight and twinkling lights representing stars. Play sounds of waves gently coming ashore.
COLE: So this is how I end up, alone on a deserted beach at midnight talking to myself. (beat.) Oh! I didn’t hear you coming! I don’t believe it. You’re going to stop right next to me! You’re not afraid of me? You’re so close I can reach out and—
COLE: Sorry, I won’t hurt you. Turtles are my favorite animal. Especially sea turtles.
TURTLE: No problem. I had to move to get a pebble out from under my shell.
COLE: You … spoke!
TURTLE: You were talking to me. I thought I should return the courtesy.
COLE: This is crazy! Turtles can’t talk.
TURTLE: We can if we have something to say. Or if someone starts a polite conversation. You seem like a polite young man.
COLE: I… I guess I am. I’m Cole. What’s your name?
TURTLE: Wild animals don’t have names.
COLE: That’s not entirely true. What about Bambi, Tigger, Sven, Scooby-Doo?
TURTLE: Firstly, are you, Mr. Human, actually going to argue with me, a genuine wild animal? And secondly, those animals you call wild are all cartoons! To top it off, Scooby-Doo is a dog, the second most common domesticated animal after your kind!
COLE: If you’re so wild, how do you know about cartoons?
TURTLE: Excuse me? During the day, this beach is packed with kids. Unlike you, I do more listening than talking.
COLE: Sorry, I’m still trying to get used to a talking turtle.
TURTLE: No problem. We wild creatures are used to it. We usually can’t get a word in edgewise! Nobody listens!
COLE: I’ll try to be more understanding.
TURTLE: And less talkative? That would help, a little. Why are you here?
COLE: Why am I here? Why are any of us here? Why do humans even exist? That’s a universal question isn’t it?
TURTLE: Well, yes, I suppose, but I only meant–
COLE: That’s the question I’m trying to answer myself. Maybe if I look at the night sky, you know, observe the universe, contemplate space in all its majesty and vastness that maybe I’ll have a revelation. Discover my reason for being, for my very existence, you know, the purpose of my life. The path I should take, the way forward, into the future. Does that make sense?
TURTLE: Not really. I just meant what are you doing here, alone on the beach in the middle of the night?
COLE: Like I said, looking for answers.
TURTLE: That’s good. Most humans come down here at this time of night looking for a place to pee. Disgusting! But answers? I’m not sure anybody ever found any of those on this beach. What do they look like?
COLE: Another good question. Let me think about that for a minute. (beat) Answers themselves are usually invisible. You see them when something happens after a question. You know, like when your Mom asks you what you want for supper and you say lobster and she makes pot roast.
TURTLE: So, her answer was, no?
COLE: Every time. Mostly I’m here because she was pressuring me to go to college. I didn’t want to. But when I told her so, we had a big fight. I left home and I’ve been traveling the whole country trying to find an answer for myself. This beach is my last stop.
TURTLE: I don’t have that problem. I never met my mother and I can have lobster just about any time I want to. In any case, I’ve never heard a human say they saw an answer in the stars. I’m guessing you won’t find your answers staring into space here.
COLE: I wasn’t just staring into space. I was trying to think of an answer! I have no clue what to do with my life.
TURTLE: So, you’ve decided to spend your life sitting in one place, thinking. You need to get out more.
COLE: You seem to have all the answers for me. What about for yourself?
TURTLE: If you mean do I know why I’m here? The answer is, yes. I keep the lobster population in check, find a mate every year and create the next generation of sea turtles. I’ll do that again and again for as long as I live.
COLE: Seems sort of self-centered.
TURTLE: Not really. I’m simply detached from the big picture. I maintain a certain distance. I do have feelings you know. I never knew my mother; my kids never even know me. Remember half my kids don’t make it home to the sea. Eaten you know.
TURTLE: I let nature take its’ course. I don’t have as many choices as you have.
COLE: You have a choice to live on land or in the sea.
TURTLE: Not really. I’m clumsy on land. Couldn’t get away from a predator if my life depended on it… and it would. And I don’t really like the beach. Sand gets in my crack.
COLE: I’ve had that problem myself. What’s it like living underwater?
TURTLE: Great! I’m light as a feather.
COLE: Seems dangerous to me.
TURTLE: That’s because you have to breathe so often. But you’re right. It can be dangerous. More pollution, and sometimes beach space is scarce, thanks to you people.
TURTLE: Don’t get me wrong. You’re not all bad. One time I got tangled in a fishing line. I wouldn’t be here today except some humans found me and cut me loose.
COLE: Terrible. You are lucky to be here. I’ve never had a close call like that. I guess I’ve had a sheltered life.
TURTLE: Tell me about where you live. What’s it like on land?
COLE: I was raised on a farm.
TURTLE: You mean like an oyster?
COLE: No. Not exactly. You mean to tell me you know all about Scooby-Doo but never heard about humans having farms?
TURTLE: Humans at the beach talk more about cartoons than farms.
COLE: That’s probably true. Anyway, a farm is a place on the land where a family of humans grows food.
TURTLE: Why in the world would you do that? Food is all around.
COLE: It’s a long story. Basically, some humans thought it would be easier if they had a source of food close by.
TURTLE: What’s your farm like?
COLE: It’s a big open space of land, but not sandy like the beach. At certain times of the year, we plant seeds in the soil, they grow, and when the time is right, we harvest the crop for food to eat and to sell.
TURTLE: Sounds like a lot of work.
COLE: Yes, it is. One year my dad got hurt so bad that he couldn’t work in the field.
TURTLE: Was he tangled in a fisherman’s net and nearly died of starvation?
COLE: No, but he was hurt pretty bad, right at harvest time. He couldn’t bring in our crop.
TURTLE: I understand. That meant you wouldn’t have food. Around here, nobody lasts long without being able to get food. Some actually turn into food at that point! How did you survive without being eaten?
COLE: Other humans that live near us. Our community.
TURTLE: Your pod?
COLE: Something like that. Anyway, one morning all our neighbors showed up at our farm with their harvesting equipment. They worked together and brought in our crop.
TURTLE: And then they ate it all?
COLE: No, it doesn’t work like that.
TURTLE: It does where I come from!
COLE: They brought the crop in for us. We were grateful for their help just like you were when those humans cut you free from the fishing line.
TURTLE: I think I understand. (beat) You don’t have to sit here looking into space for the answer to your question.
COLE: What do you mean?
TURTLE: I mean your answer is not in space it’s inside you … in your nature. Part of what you are.
COLE: I don’t understand.
TURTLE: Obviously not or you wouldn’t still be sitting here.
COLE: Are you trying to say that the answer to why I’m here, is—
TURTLE: I’m saying you already have the answer.
COLE: I don’t see it.
TURTLE: Like you said. You find answers to questions in the things that happen.
COLE: I don’t—
TURTLE: Cole, your father, your neighbors, the way they came to help without even being asked. They knew what needed to be done and they did it. That’s the answer.
COLE: But how—
TURTLE: You’re a human aren’t you? You’re not a Vulcan from space are you?
COLE: A Vulcan? How do you know about… Oh, the kids on the beach.
TURTLE: Their parents. Big Star Trek fans. But I digress. You humans are here… to help each other, and sea turtles like me and other animals, even the wild ones. You’re human. You care. It’s in your nature.
COLE: I get it. You’re saying I should become a marine biologist.
TURTLE: I what… not exactly–
COLE: Look, the constellation Pisces! It’s a sign!
TURTLE: Oh boy.
COLE: Thanks a lot, Turtle. Finally, I have the answer! I’ll go home and start college in the fall, and I’ll work with Dad this summer and one day I’ll be a famous marine biologist!
TURTLE: No problem. (sarcastically) Thanks for listening. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I feel another clutch of eggs coming.
End of Play
*This play is published for reading purposes only.*
Performance is prohibited without proper consent from the author.
If you are interested in staging a performance or table reading of this play contact the author – Kathleen Maule Holen via email : capr @ ruraltel.net. Her profile is also listed on the New Play Exchange where you can inquire about this piece and her other work.
About the Author:
Kathleen Maule Holen writes for community theatre. Her published plays include Woodstock Reunion, A Chicken Fried Murder and Detective Weston’s Last Case which received second place in Mixing It Up Spring Festival 2021. Nobody Kills Sherlock was awarded first place by Julian Playwrights Festival 2023 and performed by Hays Community Theatre. She hopes to bring people together by sharing her stories. She is listed on New Play Exchange. Email contact: capr @ ruraltel.net
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