Ivan's Place
In honor of the greatest moralist who never lived
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Becker

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The Handshake — A Pantomime
Copyright 1977 by William G. Becker

The pantomime below has been performed three times, sometime in the 1980s: twice at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church in Canoga park, California; and once by the boys in a drama class at Francis Parkman Middle School in Woodland Hills, California. One Emerson perfomance was by men of the congregation, and one by the boys of the church youth group.

For permission to perform The Handshake, please contact me at ivanklives@willamgbecker.com or ivanklives@earthlink.net.

Cast of Characters: four men, denoted M1, M2, M3, M4.

M1 and M2, strangers to each other, enter stage at opposite ends, walking toward, but at first unaware of, each other. As they approach each other, they nod, and M1 asks M2 for the time. They chat for a moment or two (about the weather, geography, directions to a town, or ...), and as they part, shake hands in acknowledgment of a friendly meeting. But, the handshake lasts a bit too long, and it becomes clear that M1 has initiated a power struggle. The elements of the handshake are:

1) ordinary handshake;
2) M1 begins a "macho grip," to the surprise and dismay of M2;
3) M2 tries to release himself, but cannot; M2 begins to fight back, and the "handshake" takes on the character of Indian wrestling.
4) This continues in earnest for a few moments until M1 "wins" by forcing M2 off balance and onto the floor. This might be choreographed, depending on the abilities of the actors.

M1 then helps M2 up, and pats him on the back as if congratulating him on a game well played. (M1 praises M2's biceps, for example, and indicates that M2 really made him work for his victory. M2 is at first confused by this second reversal, but is won over by M1's affability and compliments. He might even posture a bit, being careful not to overdo it, however.)

In the process of straightening and dusting off M2's shirt, M1 notices that it is nicer than his own, and communicates this to M2 with appropriate comparative gestures (indicating spots and tears on his own shirt, the fineness of the fabric of M2's shirt). M1 does not ask for M2's shirt outright, but his intention is clear as he stands back and waits for the expected response. After a moment of internal struggle, M2 offers his shirt to M1, who feigns surprised delight. (M2 is wearing a T-shirt under his shirt.)

The two exchange shirts, and it is clear that M2 has become M1's lieutenant. As they chat about "handshake" technique, M3 comes on stage. M3 is a bookish type and not physically imposing.

Upon noticing M3, M1 and M2 discuss who should work the "handshake" on him. M1 convinces the reluctant M2 that he can do it, and the handshake is repeated between M2 and M3 as it was between M1 and M2, with M2 "winning" easily. After his victory, however, M2 yanks M3 up, and demands M3's shirt with none of M1's subtlety, and without even comparing the shirts.

In fact, M2 has traded a better shirt for a worse one, which is made clear to the audience by M3 looking at his "new" shirt with surprised admiration and approval, while M2 is oblivious to the fact.

M1 has been watching all this from the side, expressing sardonic amusement at M2's lack of class and imagination. He then steps forward to welcome M3 into their little circle of "handshakers." M3 does not want to be included, and tries to leave. M1 affably puts his arm around M3's shoulder, and, shaking his hand, draws him back into the circle. M3 is thus included, whether he likes it or not.

M2 then tries to teach M3 "handshake" technique, but M3 is clearly not made for such activity. While M3 fumbles his "lessons," M4 enters, and a similar discussion takes place as to who will challenge him. M3 is the first choice, but he refuses. M2 is tired, and suggests that it is time for M1 to prove himself anew. M1 steps forward and goes through the standard routine.

This time, however, his "macho grip" is met not only with surprise and momentary uncertainty, but with equal force. It soon becomes clear that M1 is outmatched, and, somewhat in a panic, he tries to free himself. He tries diversion (pointing behind M4 at a non-existent object, and trying to jerk his hand free when M4 looks around), pleading, but to no avail. All the while, M4 is maintaining just enough force to maintain control over M1, who, after a frantic attempt to "Indian wrestle" himself free, more or less defeats himself and collapses in a heap on the floor.

M2 and M3 have been watching this action with a growing sense of horror, and when M4 turns to them with an outstretched hand, they collapse over each other in an attempt to get away. M4 walks over to where they lay cringing on the floor, and continues to proffer his hand. Finally, M2 timidly and fatalistically takes it, expecting to be subdued anew. M4 assists him to his feet, gives him a final, firm handshake, and exits in his original direction.

M2 ponders this unexpected turn of events, and is startled out of his musing by a cautiously approaching M3. After a few seconds hesitation, M2 takes off his shirt (formerly M3's), and offers it back to M3. M3 refuses it because his new shirt - formerly M1's - is better than his old one, and he feels that he should not have to return M1's shirt.

M2 then approaches M1 with the intention of retrieving his own shirt. (M1 has been sitting sullenly on the floor, paying little or no attention to the surrounding action. He is inactive, so as not to draw attention from M2 and M3.) After seeing how unthreatening and small M1 has become, and realizing how unpleasant it would be to get his own shirt back, M2 decides that it isn't worth the effort, and simply drapes M3's original shirt over the vanquished bully's head.

M2 and M3 then chat about having a beer together (hamburger or soda for student players?), and exit in the direction of the nearest tavern/cafe. The lights dim on M1 sitting on the floor with the shirt draped over his head.

Author's note: The actors can use their imaginations as regards timing and additional character-defining material. Don't let it get too complicated, however.

A more pointed variation might be done where M1 wears a business suit and carries a briefcase; M2 is in blue-collar attire, and M3 and M4 are dressed casually.
The item to be exchanged here would be the watch itself, which M1 indicated earlier isn't working. At some point, M1 would make clear, to the audience only, that his watch works perfectly well, and that M2's watch is nothing more than a trophy, obviously obtained through a lie. For example, M1 might pull several watches out of his briefcase and admire them; replace his "defective" watch with M2's on his wrist, and return all of his trophy watches to his briefcase. This variation would directly represent the violence and dishonesty hidden beneath much of corporate America's civilized facade. M2 would then retrieve his watch from M1's wrist at the end of the action, still unaware of the deception. The item exchange between M2 and M3 — not necessarily a watch — could be worked out by the actors and the director, being sure to preserve the sense of M2's initial cluelessness.

Actors and director are encouraged to use their imaginations, but keep it as a pantomime. It might even be elaborated into a real dance number. Under no circumstances is the pantomime to be made gender-neutral — politically correct, in other words — by converting the male characters to female characters, or by mixing female and male characters. This pantomime is a comment about men only. Females could act the male roles, as males, however.

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