The four horsemen wear all white, as a base colour, with military style boots, accented by specified coloured accessories (the look should be reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange). Coloured lighting will turn their white outfits to differing colours at times. Each has a wooden hobbyhorse, identical except in colour, which they NEVER put down. They sit on plain black wooden chairs, which are arranged in a diagonal line from front to back across the stage. There is no other set. Costumes and props are key. They do not have to take the same seats every time – no set order.
The banter between the four horsemen should be very snappy – they are like friends or siblings who’ve known each other since early years.
WAR – Red horse, wears a red helmet and carries a red sword
FAMINE – Black horse, black weighing scales, large black scarf/cloak
PESTILENCE – Wears white, with a white horse, white crown and white bow.
DEATH – Pale green horse, pale green waistcoat, pale green sword
1st MAN – Wearing traditional Colonial East India Company Merchant garb
2nd MAN – Wearing traditional Colonial East India Company Merchant garb
WOMAN – Wearing black modern clothes, very simple
VARIOUS non speaking characters including soldiers of various eras and BioHazard experts.
As the curtains open, music plays: Riders on the Storm by The Doors. The lights slowly rise. The four horsemen are sat, semi-sleeping, casually nodding, lulled. As the music fades, they sit, in various reposes of boredom.
WAR: Is it time yet?
FAMINE: Time? It’s always time.
PESTILENCE: Time waits for no man.
DEATH: Time and tide wait for no man, get it right.
PESTILENCE: Bloody pedant.
DEATH: (Getting up, wandering around, hands in pockets) We have all the time in the world, might as well be accurate about things.
WAR: I’m getting so very bored of waiting…
FAMINE: You were bored by the Dark Ages.
WAR: (Sharpening his sword) It wasn’t so much bored, as ready, you know? I mean, such great battles – Hastings, the Crusades… and the Black Death, I mean come on, how great a collaboration between our two brethren here, Pestilence and Death…?
PESTILENCE: (Folding arms, fed up) You know I hate that name. Conquest, Victory, names to be proud of… why in Hades does everyone refer to me as Pestilence these days?
DEATH: It was my idea anyway…
PESTILENCE: (Getting up) Excuse me? Your idea…? Do you know how much planning I put into that, you cheeky bastard…
FAMINE: (Slouched, laid back in chair) Chill out, will you? This pattern keeps repeating. You get bored. You all start bickering. We have to pull a few stunts to amuse ourselves, the world thinks we’re coming… they don’t understand we don’t get to decide when we’re coming.
WAR: (sitting forward now, hunched over sword laid in lap) No, we bloody don’t get to decide. Why did we sign up for this job in the first place? I’ve barely had a day off in millennia, and yet… (sigh) I have this persistent feeling of ennui this days. This country invades this country, this one gets involved, this one doesn’t, this one wants oil so they help this one, bish bash boff, they’ve only got scuds and we’ve got nukes, let’s call the whole thing off…
PESTILENCE: True. There’s very little victory or conquest these days, maybe that’s why they’ve forgotten my name…
FAMINE: And you do such a good sideline in wasting diseases… Look, most people’s careers develop as they stay in a role – yours has mutated. But look what you’ve achieved in the latter half of the 20th Century, eh? A disease that they get from screwing? What a way to compound their misery…
DEATH: It doesn’t need much compounding, to be fair. Miserable bastards out there. So many doing my job for me. On themselves. Wasteful.
FAMINE: You mean it’s so sad?
DEATH: I mean it’s selfish.
PESTILENCE: For those left behind?
DEATH: For me. Spoils my fun. Saves me a job, means I get bored.
FAMINE: You like your work far too much, Death.
DEATH: Nothing wrong with taking some pride in your work. And it’s all a warm up, really, for the big day. I feel like a bride without a groom right now, rehearsing for the biggest day of your life without a clue when it’s going to happen. Got to keep sharp, got to keep fit, the apocalypse will NOT be televised but it could happen any minute and I want to be on the top of my game when…
FAMINE: (interrupting) Do you think it will?
DEATH: Will what?
FAMINE: Happen? Ever, let alone any day now?
DEATH: Of course it will.
PESTILENCE: There’s been so many near misses, eh? I’ve thought it was going to happen so many times…
WAR: Yeah, so many calls to the breach… only to find – life goes on. No apocalypse today.
They all sit again. The lights fade, leaving only a dark blue-black light on FAMINE. The others are in freeze.
Music: It’s the End of the World as We Know It – REM
FAMINE: What you have to realise in a job like this, is that I don’t cause the famines. I marshall them, if you like… I infect them when they start and make them more than they are, I exacerbate them… But I don’t cause them. I don’t have that much power.
Let me tell you about Bengal. Bengal was one of the biggest, you see. Yet I bet you don’t even know about it…
Two men enter in 18th Century sailor costume, carrying documents. Famine watches them.
1st MAN: Let us continue with this discussion later, Johnson, now is not the time…
2nd MAN: But, sir, we have to address this issue – the effects are becoming devastating…
1st MAN: It’s a minor problem, it will pass when those lazy natives get their arses in gear and supply the right amounts…
2nd MAN: Sir, we’ve taken too much. People are dying…
1st MAN: If people are dying, that’s nothing to do with you, me, or the East India Company, Johnson. If the farmers don’t know how to grow their crops properly and can’t keep their end of the bargain, well…
2nd MAN: But you know there’s been droughts, they can’t produce enough to feed themselves, let alone provide the goods for export…
1st MAN: Like I said, if they’re not keeping up their end of the bargain…
2nd MAN: And now the company proposes to raise the land tax by – another ten percent? How do we expect them to survive…?
1st MAN: Truth is hard, Johnson. But their survival is not the Company’s priority…
2nd MAN: (sadly) … and profit is?
1st MAN: (slapping him on the back as they exit) Now you’re getting it, Johnson!
FAMINE: The truth is, there’s always enough to go around, across the continents. One country’s obesity is another country’s extreme weight-loss programme, right? Because they never like to share. We share. We share a lot…You’ll see we’re all connected, me to war, war to pestilence, pestilence to death, and in any combination or order…though there is a thing. Death. He – he outweighs the balance somewhat. He knows it. He’s got an edge over us, and he knows it.
Lights up on all four horsemen again, back in their chairs.
WAR is rocking, impatiently.
PESTILENCE: Please will you desist? You’re driving me mad.
WAR: I can’t help it. I can smell it. I can smell it down there…
PESTILENCE: Fuck’s sake. I remember you getting like this during the Cold War… jumpy, twitchy, ready to climb the walls…
WAR: So bloody frustrating!
(He jumps up, and during the next makes his way towards FAMINE)
I hate the dancing around before the event! You know what I mean! Like a dog on heat when I taste the conflict building, I just wanna … grrrrrrr…. (dry humping against FAMINE’s shoulder)
FAMINE: (in disgust) Get off you jackass!! Ugh!
WAR moves away, laughing, and paces around downstage.
PESTILENCE: What’s brewing, anyway? What’s got him all worked up this time? Where are we?
DEATH: Weapons of Mass Destruction. Also known as Weapons of Fictional Imagination.
WAR: Doesn’t matter! Doesn’t matter! The tension is the palpable, breathing thing that is plucking at my heartstrings right now… can’t you feel it? It’s dee-lic-ious…
PESTILENCE: Don’t get yourself too worked up. I’m cooking up the next big thing. It’s my turn for a little attention…
DEATH: Oh, yes? What have you got for us, then? You always were an attention seeking whore…I mean that affectionately, of course…
PESTILENCE: (smiling) Of course…
Lights dim. A harsh, bright white light on PESTILENCE. The others are in freeze.
PESTILENCE: This is my dream scenario. I love the way things are connected, the way things spread… the infection, infestation, infiltration…
MUSIC: Billy Joel, We Didn’t Start the Fire
As the music plays, an unspoken drama unfolds. On a projector screen, images of computer failures, errors, viruses, flashes through. Meanwhile, across the stage comes from one side, a young woman, seemingly cheerful; from opposite, two people in dustmasks, who stare at her as they pass, quite sinister. They reach the other side, and look at each other, then turn around and come back. They drag her back on stage, she is clearly unwell, carried between them, and drag her across the other side of the stage. A fourth character enters in a biohazard suit. They stand centre stage in front of the projector so that the images are projected across their white suit, as they turn to images of human infection, before becoming images of fire and burning.
Lights fade on all but PESTILENCE. The Biohazard-Suit-Wearer exits.
PESTILENCE: Like my colleague said… when you can taste it all coming, it’s deee-lic-ious…. But you shouldn’t relish it too much… too much of a good thing is…the end. For us all.
Lights up on all four. WAR and FAMINE are stood, seemingly chatting. PESTILENCE looks in deep concentration. DEATH sits resting against his scythe, bored.
DEATH: Bored. Bored bored bored bored bored bored BORED… (he bangs his scythe on the floor in sheer frustration)
PESTILENCE: (looking over at him, annoyed) What is wrong with you? How can you be bored? You get all the work out of our efforts, you reap the fruits of our labour…
DEATH: I like to have work of my own to do. And it’s about time we had another bloody great big epic scale death-fest if you ask me…
PESTILENCE: Death-fest? You’re starting to sound like… oh, I don’t know… a bit common, these days, Death, my dear…
DEATH: (With a grin) Death is common… something that unites all, that comes to all. The great leveller… and whilst you lot help me out, I don’t NEED you. Ultimately, I’m always the one that wins.
The others looks at him, a look of resignation, annoyed that he is right.
FAMINE and WAR come back to their seats.
PESTILENCE: What have you two been doing, anyway?
FAMINE: Checking in. Taking the temperature of things…
WAR: There’s this little project heating up nicely in Somalia…
PESTILENCE: Oh. Would have been nice to have been asked…I thought we were a team, worked together on things…
WAR: Come on, we knew you were busy, you were deep in thought til Death interrupted with his rattlish outburst…
PESTILENCE: Doesn’t matter if I was busy. Would have been nice to have been asked, it feels like you’re deliberately trying to keep me out of things…
FAMINE: Of course we’re not, we’re just…
PESTILENCE: I thought you were my friends, but you can’t even be bothered to ask what’s on my mind, or keep me in the loop, well thanks a fucking lot, friends…
WAR: We’re not though.
(Pause. The others look at him, quizzically)
We’re not friends. Colleagues, workmates, associates… business partners, maybe. But we’re not friends, when it comes down to it. We are just stuck with each other. Waiting in this temporal, ethereal chasm between the divine and the human. Waiting. For something that might never come…
DEATH: (Jumping up in anger) Don’t say that!
WAR: But it might be true…
DEATH: (Having a proper tantrum) Don’t say that! Don’t say it! Why would you say it, you bastard, don’t say it… It’ll happen, it’ll happen…
As he beats the floor with his fists and feet, lights dim.
A red light shines on WAR, who is upstage right, looking out. He seems sadly reminiscent. The other three are in freeze.
WAR: I’ve been so very, very busy all this time… how long? We can’t really measure. It’s like a stasis we’re in, a waking sleep. We can see what’s happening, feel it, pull on the puppet strings from time to time, a tug here, a droop there, the marionettes of history dangle under our infernal hands.
(During the next, four soldiers, dressed each from a different war era – WWII, War of the Roses, Crimean War, Modern military gear, march across the stage, then turn and take up point behind each of the four horsemen’s chairs)
Death likes to boast and complain that he has the last word, that he has the biggest job. But his goes on with or without him, really… the gears of war, they need constant attention. I have to stay so alert. Do you realise, my job isn’t all about bringing the end of the world to hand… No. Not at all. We have to make sure that the world waits for the right day. Keeping them from spilling over, now that’s HARD. Do you know how many times it’s been – on the brink? Well, if you watch any of those American TV shows, you probably think it’s on track to end every twenty-four hours… it’s not really that dramatic, sure. But over the course of time, there’s been more near misses than you’d know. Some you might be familiar with, sure… especially this last 100 years or so. I can feel the dogs of war marching on, relentless…I haven’t had a day’s rest, not ever.
Pause. The soldiers take aim, pointing weaponry at the four horsemen, as WAR sits back in his seat.
Some wise man once said he wasn’t afraid of terrorists… born during the Second World War, every decade someone new was trying to kill him… Hitler, Communists, IRA, Al-Qaeda…And he noted the persistence of repetition, of conflict and defeat, conflict and conquest, an end and a beginning, a circle with no end.
I’m just so tired of it all. I am worn out. But I have got to wonder… if we weren’t here – if there wasn’t the threat of us – how much worse might it all be?
He sits back, and with a casual wave of his hand, the soldiers turn to each other and fire, dropping dead.
Swift lights down. MUSIC: Two Tribes by Frankie Goes to Hollywood
Lights up on all four horsemen. They have turned their chairs so they are astride them and holding their hobby horses out in front. As the music fades, they are banging the staffs of the horses against the floor rhythmically, in unison.
WAR: It’s time.
PESTILENCE: It’s time.
FAMINE: It’s time.
DEATH: It’s time.
Bang bang bang bang BANG to a crescendo as they stand and kick their chairs over to the floor and stand, still banging the horses.
ALL: IT’S TIME.
They stop. They look at each other. A pause.
FAMINE: Well. That was a really good drill. Same time next century?
DEATH: I guess. Maybe we’ll get to do it for real before then though.
FAMINE: Yeah. Maybe…
PESTILENCE: Look. We need to talk… about what we were discussing the other day…
DEATH: I don’t want to get back on to that subject, I hate it, you know I do…
PESTILENCE: I know, I know, but listen – it’s a real – a real gamechanger, isn’t it? The thought that we’re in this purgatory, not to act, but to be…you know…
WAR: A deterrant?
Can you imagine what they’d be like down there if they thought there was never, ever going to be an apocalypse? Never going to be an end of the world, can you imagine?
FAMINE: It would be chaos.
WAR: It is chaos.
DEATH: No. It would be worse. Wouldn’t it? No one would fear the consequences so much…
FAMINE: They’d take the world for granted…
WAR: They do anyway…
FAMINE: Yes. But with – at least some sort of sense of conscience… somewhere…
DEATH: Without you three though… there’d still be me. One way or the other. Right?
They look at him, nodding in morose acquiescence. He looks smug.
Lights dim. Music – U2 – With or Without You.
Lights up on DEATH, a pale greenish grow enveloping him while the others remain in freeze.
DEATH watches as a WOMAN enters. She crosses and kneels as if in prayer.
WOMAN: Hear my prayers, Heavenly Father, I beg of you…
DEATH: I’m listening…
WOMAN: You are not the Lord?
DEATH: I’m the only one listening.
WOMAN: I beg of you to help my child…
DEATH: I’m only doing my job.
WOMAN: But he is suffering so much…
DEATH: Hang on. I’m not the cause of suffering. I’m the release from it.
WOMAN: Then I beg of you… help me.
DEATH: Yes then. Yes, I can help you.
He touches her on the shoulder and she gets up and walks off.
(Once she has left) I’m not a bastard. This is my job. And sometimes, it’s for the best, you see… sometimes, always, it just has to come to the end. My colleagues – and yes, they are colleagues, not friends, all in all – they cause the suffering. I bring its release. I’m the cure for their disease, I clean up their messes, frankly, and what thanks do I get? I’m here constantly, waiting for the big ride out, but in the meantime it’s a waiting game where I’m constantly mopping up around their little projects. They don’t ask me if I want to, they just assume, I’m obliged to do my bit.
Three figures enter – essentially, Jack the Ripper, Harold Manson and Harold Shipman or Myra Hindley if female. They each have appropriate implements of death and they take up space by the three seated horsemen, poised ready to strike. On the projector screen are images of war, armageddon and holocaust.
I assume this is what happens when groups or individuals don’t believe in us. In the End to all Ends. They can’t do. Otherwise they wouldn’t have the lack of conscience to do what they do.
They strike at the three horsemen, who do not move. They step back into shadow and turn around. When we see them next, they are wearing identical plain grey executioners’ hoods.
During the next lines, DEATH returns to a position by his chair, standing behind it. The lights rise slightly and all four horsemen slowly stand and position themselves behind their chairs, all four resting their horses’ staffs on the seat of the wooden chair.
It’s not that they – you – have to believe in us as individuals or the apocalypse as a predestined event. Just – that if you didn’t think it was going to happen, would you live your lives more happily, or just more selfishly? Answer me honestly now.
They slowly start to bang their horses on the chairs in unison.
The thing is, in this day and age, no one believes in us anymore. We’re allegorical, fictional, redundant…as riders on the storm, anyway. Oh, yeah, War exists, famine and pestilence…real enough. I’m certainly a reality. But not in this form. My colleagues here, they need to get past it. Get over it. Move with the times. You don’t need them anymore, not when you’ve got me, right?
The hooded executioners take their places behind WAR, FAMINE and PESTILENCE. They each hold a small grey scythe.
After all, I’ll always see you on the way out…
The banging gets faster and faster until suddenly the banging stops.
In the next instant, the executioners swipe the air rapidly and the hobbyhorses drop to the floor with a bang as the riders droop into their chairs.
A pause. Lights dim until there is just a pale green light once more on DEATH.
…And I always, always have the last word.
BLACKOUT. SILENCE. END.