The unit set for Jules Verne Eats a Rhinoceros represents the offices of the New York World and Journal, a restaurant in Paris, a bar in New York, a bench in the park, German headquarters on the Austrian front, a hotel room in Toledo, a madhouse on Blackwell’s Island, a battlefield in Cuba, and “various other locations, real and imaginary . . . between 1887 and 1922.” Above the middle of the three upstage doors is the gondola of a balloon with steps leading up to it on either side. Four women, three playing multiple parts, and six men, three playing multiple parts, make up the cast. The story concerns the journalistic career of Nellie Bly and the nature of American journalism before and after WWI.
The show begins with the sounds of Offenbach’s Cancan music from Orpheus in the Underworld as the house lights go down and then the sounds of ocean and gulls as lights come up on Nellie sitting on a wooden chair in a small circle of light center stage. From out of the darkness we hear the Doctor’s voice, questioning Nellie about what she remembers. Although she cannot remember her name or birthplace, she does remember Jules Verne eating a rhinoceros. The Doctor says he is going to send her to an island where there are people who can help her.
As the light fades on Nellie we are jolted by the “rather overwhelming” Offenbach cancan music and the entire stage is suddenly full of people in a French restaurant, moving to the rhythm of the music. A waiter sets out plates and silverware at the downstage right table as Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, and McGonigle sit at an upstage desk that doubles as a table while John Rhys (pronounced “rice”) Pendragon and the three Giggle Sisters sit at the down left table. Jules Verne, in full beard, shakes hands with Pulitzer and Hearst, flirts with the Giggle Sisters, touches Rhys on the shoulder, and moves to the DR table as the music comes to a climax and the waiter brings Nellie from her chair to the same table. Nellie tells Verne that it is a tremendous honor to be granted an interview with him, and Verne says that creation is lunacy and that farce is the most realistic art form, telling Nellie that theatre is the place where everyone can go happily to the Devil together. Verne says that he has to keep writing if only to perpetuate the illusion of significance and asks Nellie if she has ever eaten a rhinoceros. He says there is no food in Paris because the Germans have surrounded the city, but the Waiter enters with a large covered pan on a platter and takes the lid off the pan to reveal the cooked head of a rhinoceros.
Cancan music plays as the lights dim on the DR table and come up on the table DL to the laughter of the Giggle Sisters. The other actors have left the stage during the music and McGonigle is moving down to join Rhys and the Sisters. Rhys, who never tries to be funny, is making them laugh with his deadpan remarks. He introduces McGonigle to them and McGonigle tells Rhys he has bad news: Nellie Bly is dead, of pneumonia, and Hearst wants Rhys to write the obituary.
McGonigle recalls the first time he saw Nellie, in the old World offices, and the lights fade on the table and come up on the upstage doors as McGonigle moves upstage towards his old desk and Nellie is shoved out from an inner office. When she tries to go back in, the door is slammed in her face. Furious, Nellie tells McGonigle that she has been in New York four months and cannot get a job as a reporter because she is a woman. McGonigle gives her half of his corned beef sandwich and a bottle of root beer which she devours ravenously. She tells McGonigle that she is a great reporter and just needs a chance. She says looking innocent is a big advantage and allows her to write the truth. McGonigle, smitten, takes out an old trumpet and blows a “very loud, horrendous, brassfart, moose-bellow noise.” He blows twice more and Pulitzer storms out of the central door. (He speaks English with a Hungarian/Germanic accent all his own.) Nellie tells him that she will be a famous reporter if he will just give her a chance, but Pulitzer rejects her arguments and tries to go back in his office. She blocks his way and tells him to think how sorry he’s going to be if he turns her away and she ends up becoming the most famous reporter in the world. He admits that she has a bucket load of chutzpa but he doesn’t know what to do with her. When she suggests that she be sent to France to interview Jules Verne, he tells her that Jules Verne eating a cabbage is not a story, but Jules Verne eating a rhinoceros is a story. Nellie offers to come back from France in steerage and do a series on what it is like to be an immigrant, like Pulitzer himself. She offers to get herself admitted to a madhouse to write about life there, but Pulitzer thinks it is too dangerous for a woman. She pleads that she has loved his paper because he champions the underdog, the oppressed, and that if he sends a man to write about life in a madhouse he would have a cabbage, but if he sends an innocent-looking girl like her, it’s a huge rhinoceros. Pulitzer agrees to ten days and goes back in his office as the lights go to black.
We hear “the earsplitting sound” of a woman screaming horribly and a babble of voices, monkey chatter, panther growls, elephants trumpeting, and a rhinoceros snorting, under which an eerie player piano version of the cancan music plays quietly. As the babble subsides, lights come up on Verne writing at a table and Nellie standing lost and bewildered. Three Madwomen wander about, Theodore Roosevelt runs across the stage shouting “Charrrrrrrrrrge!” Verne narrates his story, Roosevelt again, than a Barbary ape runs off with 2nd Madwoman over his shoulder as she screams and 1st Madwoman follows them screaming. Pulitzer comes out of his office to chase after a rhinoceros and the News Hawker shouts headlines and Roosevelt runs back on to snatch up 3rd Madwoman and run off with her. In a slight pause in this madcap action, Nellie asks Verne why she has run into him in a madhouse. She thinks it is a remarkable coincidence, but he says it is not a coincidence, it is a play. The Barbary Ape chases Roosevelt across the stage, both screaming, and Verne insists they are trapped in a play, explaining that he is writing a novel in which Nellie is trapped in a madhouse inside a play. Shouting “Charrrrrrrrrrge!”, Verne runs out the center door, slamming it behind him and we hear birds singing as Nellie joins Rhys on the park bench.
Nellie tells him that the men decide who is and who is not crazy, and Rhys says his mother kept piglets in a box under her bed and talked to them as if they were her dead triplets. He tells her that the woman he loved married his father, set herself on fire, and drowned in a pond. Nellie says that the whole idea of romantic love escapes her, but Rhys tells her she is just protecting herself. She says she treats all marriage proposals as jokes. She and Rhys kiss and she leaves, telling him that she has to feed her monkey and write a story about her adventures impersonating a prostitute.
As she sits at McGonicle’s desk in the upstage shadows, Verne joins Rhys on the bench and speaks of the rhinoceros, saying that the play is progressing rather well. When Rhys wonders what play, Verne responds, “Exactly!” and we hear the cancan music “loud and uproarious” as the lights fade on them and come up on the three upstage doors and the stage is suddenly full of people running about, in and out of doors, “a manic French farce,” while the News Hawker shouts out headlines and Roosevelt, Pulitzer, 2nd and 3rd Madwomen, Verne, and Barbary Ape chase Nellie and each other around the stage with lights flickering and the sounds of elephants, horses, cows, monkeys, and jungle birds creating a cacophony. As the music comes to an end, all the characters except Nellie exit through the doors, slamming them as they go.
McGonigle sits at his desk and Pulitzer emerges from his office, slamming the door to the last note of the music, and rushes to Nellie, who is close to collapsing. He tells her to go to the prison to interview Emma Goldman. He says some “rich son of a pitch named Hearst” is trying to buy a paper with his mother’s money and wipe out competition. Pulitzer, who is losing his sight, runs into the door as he tries to go into his office. He exits after telling Nellie that if there is one thing he doesn’t like about anarchy, it’s chaos, and slams the door, signalling a reprise of the cancan as people start running in and out of doors and chasing each other madly across the stage. Nellie moves downstage and “the final note of the music is simultaneous with the slamming of the left and right doors and a blackout.”
The lights then come up on a small prison cell where Emma Goldman is sitting on a chair by the DL table. (The year is 1893.) Verne is writing in the shadows of the DR table. Emma is familiar with Nellie’s story about the madhouse and her writing on other subjects. She says that she has been put in jail for telling the truth about the government, and when Nellie suggests that, although flawed, the government is “rather wonderful,” Emma replies that it is good for white Protestant rich men, but not for the poor, the sick and old, people, of color, immigrants, and women. A capitalist oligarchy controlled by obscenely rich men and gigantic obscene monopolies, she says, is not a paradise for the poor. She says that Pulitzer will throw Nellie out like garbage when she gets older and is not so pretty, and she urges her to leave the paper. Verne says (in a note to himself) that his heroine is carried off by insane puppets, commenting, “Brilliant!” as the lights fade on the jail cell and we hear a calliope version of the cancan music.
A spotlight shines on the gondola and we see two handpuppets, Mr. Punch and the Ghost of his wife Judy, whom he has murdered. They speak in high squeaky voices as Nellie moves upstage to join 3rd Madwoman, Hearst, Pulitzer, and Captain Nemo. Judy’s Ghost tells Punch that, if he doesn’t mend his ways, he will be eaten by the Crocodile. Punch scoffs at the notion, but the Crocodile puppet appears behind him and swallows him. The onlookers applaud and the puppets disappear inside the gondola. Nellie walks downstage with Captain Nemo, “a suave looking older man,” who asks her to suppose that he is a manufacturer of barrel hoops and not the captain of a submarine. Nellie says her negative image of marriage was created by a Punch and Judy show she saw as a child. The lights fade on them and a “ghostly light” comes up on Punch and Judy in the gondola. Punch asks Judy to marry him, saying that the journey through the guts of the crocodile has changed him and he promises never to murder her again. They kiss, Nellie and Captain Nemo kiss, and the Crocodile tells the audience that puppet love is a good thing because it makes more food for crocodiles.
The lights fade and we hear sinister music as Nellie crosses to sit with Rhys on the park bench. (It is 1895; Rhys is 25, Nellie is 28.) Upstage lurking in the shadows in Hearst. Nellie tells Rhys that he is a wonderful writer and that she has heard that Hearst is trying to steal him away from Pulitzer. She says she is getting married to an extremely successful manufacturer of barrel hoops and that she is tired of rushing madly around the world and craves stability. She says she is the most famous reporter in the world and has had some wonderful times but that she has had enough. Rhys thinks marriage is a big mistake and says he will not come to the wedding, although he promises to visit her later on. She hugs him and runs off. Rhys watches her, then sits and drinks from a flask as Hearst moves toward him. We hear crows and the wind blows an old newspaper across the stage. Hearst asks Rhys if he is ready to come to work for him, offering to double his salary. Rhys says he will stick with Pulitzer. Hearst says Pulitzer’s time is over, that he is nearly blind, and it’s time for a new generation. He offers to triple Rhys’ salary and let him write whatever he wants. Rhys says that Hearst manufactures news to sell papers, and Hearst responds that nothing is news until he prints it.
The light fades on them and we hear calliope music and the strange babblings of the mad and the wild animal noises as the lights come up on Nellie, barefoot, in a madwoman’s white frock and straightjacket, on a chair center stage. Verne is writing at his table DR while the Doctor observes Nellie closely and the three Madwomen wander, talking to themselves. Nellie questions Verne about why his heroine would marry an elderly manufacturer of barrel hoops when she loved the young man from Ohio (Rhys). Verne says if she needs a reason she should make one up, that we are trapped in our heads, not knowing much of anything, in a madhouse farce written by a demented playwright diety. The Doctor tells Nellie that her case is the most puzzling of his career but he hopes to solve it. Barbary Ape carries a large tub onto the stage and Nellie tells Doctor that the women have been locked up in the madhouse because they speak Portugese and are not crazy at all. Barbary Ape picks Nellie up, puts her in the tub, and empties a bucket of water over her head, then another. Doctor explains that the ice water treatment is to shock her into a more socially acceptable perception of reality. After another bucket of water, Barbary Ape lifts her from the tub, and Verne narrates that his heroine, trapped in a madhouse, finds herself more and more disoriented. Doctor and Barbary Ape hold hands and skip offstage together, humming the cancan music. The Madwomen try to console Nellie, saying that the water treatment is a kind of initiation ceremony, “like losing your virginity to a gorilla.” Nellie protests that they don’t understand, that she doesn’t belong there, that it is just a story. They tell her that tomorrow is enema day. Verne exults, “A stroke of genius!” and says that he needs a big finish for the first act: “Salacious dancing!” The cancan music comes up very loudly, the Madwomen do the cancan with Barbary Ape, Pulitzer, Hearst, Doctor, and Verne. Nellie looks across at Rhys who is standing by the park bench looking at her. Music and dance end. Blackout.
As the intermission ends, we hear cancan music in the darkness and then the sound of a clock ticking slowly as lights come up on Nellie and Rhys in the Wax Museum. The actors, frozen in place, are arranged around the stage and in the gondola: Pulitzer, Hearst, Verne, Doctor, Captain Nemo, 1st and 2nd Suffragettes, and Susan B. Anthony. Rhys tells Nellie that McGonigle has gone to work for Hearst and she tells him that marriage is a nightmare, worse than the madhouse, and that her husband is having her followed. Rhys suggests she come back to the paper, but Captain Nemo (a wax manikin coming to life) says he has caught her with another man. Nellie screams, tells him she is going back to work at the newspaper, and goes off. Rhys advises Captain Nemo to love whoever Nellie is at any given moment, but Nemo says he never should have left his submarine. He exits, the lights fade on Rhys, and Pulitzer comes to life and rushes down the steps, groping blindly, shouting for “Mickgoonicle.” Rhys tells him McGonigle has gone to work for Hearst, and Nellie enters saying she has been filing her story on the Elephants’ Burial Ground. Pulitzer says they have to beat Hearst and wants Nellie to get on top of another elephant. Nellie says she first wants to cover the Convention for the Rights of Working Women and meet Susan B. Anthony. Pulitzer objects but concedes when she tells him that Hearst is doing a two-page spread on the Convention. She leaves after kissing him on the cheek, and Rhys tells Pulitzer that many of his reporters left, not because of money, but because he screamed at and tried to manipulate them. Pulitzer is outraged, tells Rhys that the truth is what he says it is, and that Rhys is fired. Pulitzer goes to his office door, runs into the wall, finds the door knob, and slams the door behind him. As the lights fade on Rhys, the 1st and 2nd Suffragettes come alive and raise signs (FEMALE EMANCIPATION and MAKE YOUR OWN DAMNED FLAPJACKS), then chase Hearst and Verne around the stage and off, beating them over the head with the signs, and lights come up on Nellie and Susan B. Anthony on the park bench. Susan B. Anthony says she has been in love many times but finds marriage generally horrifying and for the woman a recipe for disaster. There is a huge explosion and everything goes dark.
We hear screams of agony and the News Hawker’s voice shouting about the battleship Maine being blown up in Havana Harbor. The lights come up on Rhys and McGonigle in 1898 at the offices of the Journal. Hearst bursts through the center door, very excited about the battleship (he calls it the Massachusetts) being blown up because it means there’s going to be a war to liberate the oppressed people of Cuba from enslavement to the Spanish Empire and he is going to sell “one goddamned shitload of papers and destroy that son of a bitch Joe Pulitzer once and for all.” He tells Rhys to get to Cuba and write some heart-wrenching stories about the poor, oppressed Cuban people. Rhys worries that Pulitzer may send Nellie, but McGonigle tells him that Nellie has reconciled with her husband. Rhys goes off downstage and McGonigle goes off upstage, leaving Hearst writing at his desk. Pulitzer rushes out of his office at the World, wondering what Hearst is doing in his office. He accuses Hearst of stealing all his reporters, and Hearst replies that he gave them more money and a happy workplace and created a war and is selling newspapers like hotcakes. Pulitzer says that whatever Hearst does he will do better. Hearst says he loves a good fight; it will sell more papers. He leaves, warning Pulitzer not to step in horse shit. Pulitzer yells after him that he will defeat him, then goes into his office, running into the door, and slamming it behind him.
Blackout and sounds of gunfire and explosions and the voice of the News Hawker shouting headlines about Cuba, Dewey taking Manila, America annexing Hawaii, and Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill. Lights come up on Rhys, sitting on the ground, his arm bleeding. Hearst, in a pith helmet, comes downstage and tells Rhys that he is tired of rewriting his dispatches. Rhys grabs him by the lapels and tells him that if he changes one word Rhys will put a number 2 pencil through his eyesocket to the back of his skull. Hearst fires him and, when Rhys asks for a doctor, leaves him. There is a large explosion, blackout, and the News Hawker’s voice shouting headlines about victory in Cuba, McKinley being assassinated, Emma Goldman being arrested, Teddy Roosevelt becoming President, Rhys Pendragon joining the Times, and Nellie Bly’s husband dying.
We hear birdsong and the lights come up on Nellie and Rhys walking in the park (perhaps 1907). Pulitzer is on the bench, his hands on a cane before him. Rhys tells Nellie that he will not get into an automobile that she is driving. She says she took over her husband’s business and has expanded it, putting management into the hands of “a wonderful man.” Rhys warns her that business is inherently corrupt and that if money is appearing and disappearing in the accounts then the man is a crook. She thinks Rhys needs a wife and learns that he is still in love with the woman in Ohio. Nellie says Rhys needs someone very like her, but not so restless, to be his anchor when he is adrift at sea. As the lights fade on them we hear the ocean and gulls.
Two dim pools of light on the stage–one on Pulitzer and Rhys (on Pulitzer’s yacht in 1911), the other on Nellie and Captain Nemo (another ship in 1914)–set the scene for the alternating dialogue of the two duos. We learn that Rhys has married and has a baby girl, and when Nemo tells Nellie that Rhys and Pulitzer loved her she says that Rhys is married and that Pulitzer has been dead for three years. Nellie says she is going to Vienna and doesn’t think there will be a war in Europe. Pulitzer tells Rhys that he finally figured out that McGonigle was blowing the trumpet. As the two spotlights fade out we hear the sound of explosions and the lights come up on Nellie in a chair center stage being interrogated by Bismark, who is convinced she is a spy. Doctor enters to treat Bismark’s bleeding buttock wound and recognizes Nellie as the now-famous reporter he treated in the insane asylum many years earlier. Bismark wants someone to shoot Nellie, but there is a loud explosion and the three fall to the ground in the blackout. The News Hawker shouts headlines about the Germans surrendering, Plank winning the Nobel Prize for quantum theory, Prohibition beginning next year, and Jack Dempsey going to fight Jess Willard in Toledo.
The lights come up on a hotel room in Toledo, Ohio (1919), that has been turned into a press room. Nellie tells Rhys that it took the senseless horror of war to let her discover who she is. One of the upstage doors bursts open and Ring Lardner, Damon Runyon, and Grantland Rice rush in, having had a bit to drink. They talk about the war, Hearst and Pulitzer, bemoan the lack of a ready liquor supply, and are joined by the Giggle Sisters who have booze and invite them to a party in their room. After they leave, Nellie tells Rhys she was sorry to hear that his wife had died in the influenza pandemic. She says she remembers the first time she met Rhys, and McGonigle appears, corned beef sandwich in hand, and moves to his desk as we hear a “slow, sad, eerie version of the Offenbach played on an old piano.” Nellie asks Rhys if he remembers how exciting it all was then and as they look at each other the light fades and we hear a jauntier version of the Offenbach.
The lights come up on the offices of the World in autumn, 1888. Nellie asks McGonigle about the mail and Rhys enters with a burlap sack full of letters and one letter in his hand which he hands to McGonigle. The sack of letters and three others downstairs are for Nellie. Rhys says he wants to be a reporter and Nellie says he has to meet Pulitzer. Nellie pleads with McGonigle to blow his trumpet again. He blows two loud blasts and Pulitzer storms out of his office. Nellie introduces Rhys to Pulitzer and asks that Rhys be hired as her assistant. Nellie wants to travel around the world in 80 days and send back reports and interview Jules Verne when she is in France. Pulitzer finally agrees and hires Rhys as a reporter. Nellie congratulates Rhys and tells him they are going to have great adventures. The scene ends as McGonigle blows the trumpet very loudly, the lights go to black, and the orchestral version of the Offenbach plays quietly.
In the last scene, the lights come up on Nellie talking to Rhys in Toledo, but Rhys is not there and she wonders where she is. Verne appears out of the darkness behind her and tells her that the hot air balloon is ready to depart. They are going to see the elephant. He leads her up the stairs to the gondola as the cancan music swells and characters gather from all parts of the stage to see them off. Verne and Nellie throw cabbages out of the gondola to lighten the ballast. As the balloon begins to rise, Nellie calls and waves goodbye to her friends. The music thunders to a conclusion while the people wave goodbye to the disappearing gondola and the lights fade to darkness as the music comes to “a rousing, magnificent finish.”