The Time: 1792. Day.
The Place: The Palace at Versailles, Home of King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, etc.
King Louis is holding court. It is “Inventors’ Day”, the day French inventors offer their proposals for His Majesty’s approval and, it is hoped, financial backing.
(WRITER’S NOTE: Please read the following with a French accent. I will not be bozzering weez zat.)
KING LOUIS XVI: (EXTREMELY BORED) Next.
INVENTOR: Your Majesty. I am pleased to offer for your consideration the latest device for the carrying out of executions. I have brought detailed plans for my invention, which I am certain, in your abounding wisdom, Your Majesty will be easily able to understand.
KING LOUIS XVI: You know the worst part about being the king?
INVENTOR: What, Your Majesty?
KING LOUIS XVI: You never know when people are flattering you. It’s confusing, because, as it turns out, I do have “abounding wisdom.” Which I do not entirely get credit for, as you would be obligated to say I had “abounding wisdom”, even if I didn’t.
INVENTOR: Oh, no, Your Majesty…
KING LOUIS XVI: Really? You mean, if I were a drooling idiot like many of my relatives, as a result of marrying their relatives, you would not still reference my “abounding wisdom”?
INVENTOR: To a man of your astuteness, it would be foolish to offer anything but the truth.
KING LOUIS XVI: I see. So you’d call me “a drooling idiot” to my face, if that, in fact, were the case?
INVENTOR: Well, I mean…
KING LOUIS XVI: Be careful, now. You are bringing me an instrument of execution; you do not want to be its first victim. Which would be hilarious, though, arguably, not to you. By the way, that may be the best part about being the king. You can threaten the pantalones off of people. The look on your face right now? It’s priceless!
INVENTOR: Your Majesty, I am aware that every inventor is permitted only a few minutes…
KING LOUIS XVI: Okay, you’re off the hook. But no more false flattery.
INVENTOR: No more, Your Majesty.
KING LOUIS XVI: Oh, so you admit mentioning my “abounding wisdom” was false flattery! (A BEAT, DURING WHICH THE INVENTOR IS “THIS CLOSE” TO PEEING IN HIS PANTALONES. THE KING THEN TURNS REASONABLE.) Forgive me, Monsieur Inventor. I have an agile mind. And sometimes, it is in sore need of a workout. Now quickly to your invention, before your time is up, and we move on to the “self-powdering wig”, or some such.
INVENTOR: (REGAINING HIS COMPOSURE) Your Majesty. It is time to emerge from the Dark Ages of beheading and burning at the stake.
KING LOUIS XVI: Why?
INVENTOR: Excuse me, Your Majesty?
KING LOUIS XVI: I realize that, generally speaking, the Dark Ages is a good thing to emerge from, especially that bubonic plague nonsense, that was disgusting! But I am not the type of monarch who believes that everything new is automatically superior to everything old. There is something to be said about the “tried and true.” And tradition. Leave us not forget tradition. The monarchy itself is a tradition. Would you want us to “emerge” from that?
INVENTOR: Certainly not.
KING LOUIS XVI: “Certainly not” is right! We cherish our traditions in this country, and rightfully so. They have served us successfully in the past. And there is no reason to believe they will not serve us equally successfully in the future.
INVENTOR: With all due respect, Your Majesty, may I remind you that everything we now view as “tradition”, was itself once new.
KING LOUIS XVI: Well, you’ve got me there, Monsieur Inventor. Perhaps what I oppose is “new” for its own sake, something deemed an improvement not because it is actually better, but simply because its more recent.
INVENTOR: Allow me to assert my case for my revolutionary method of execution.
KING LOUIS XVI: I prefer you not say “revolutionary.”
INVENTOR: My mistake.
KING LOUIS XVI: A big one. Proceed.
INVENTOR: Thank you, Your Majesty. Let us consider the currently employed executing options: boiling in oil, burning at the stake, beheading, breaking the condemned on a wheel, and hanging, to name but five. Now I readily acknowledge that all of these methods accomplish the task at hand – to render the guilty dead as the proverbial doornail. And in that regard, they all do the trick. However, and herein my new invention is an unquestionable upgrade, these approaches are disturbingly uncertain, and they are all, particularly in the case of breaking the condemned on the wheel, agonizingly painful.
KING LOUIS XVI: Isn’t that the point?
VICTIM: The point, I believe, is to execute the prisoner.
KING LOUIS XVI: Sure, if you want to be “technical” about it. We are executing a criminal found guilty of a ‘capital’ offense – murder, rape, stealing a crust of bread – despicable crimes, all of them. And being despicable and thus crimes we want to deter others from committing, we punish the offenders by – yes, killing them – but also by drawing out their deaths, as a form of punishment and simultaneously a warning: “You commit such offenses, Monsieur Criminal, and we will break all your bones on a wheel, often several times over, or, should it be Our Royal Preference, have you jumping around for an excruciating number of minutes at the end of a rope. Your proposed plan, Monsieur Inventor, ignores the entire element of punishing the miscreant along with killing him, the deterring of potential miscreants, and, most importantly, it leaves out completely the element of “spectator fun.” But I’m only your Monarch. So feel free to disagree.
A FAWNING COURTIER: A rhyme, Your Majesty! “Feel free to dis-agree!”
KING LOUIS XVI: Forgive me, Monsieur Inventor. That is his entire job. To announce loudly every time I inadvertently make a rhyme. (TO FAWNING COURTIER) Kudos for your alertness.
FAWNING COURTIER: Thank you, Your Majesty.
KING LOUIS XVI: (TO INVENTOR) My wife’s brother. I’m considering executing her just to get rid of him.
INVENTOR: Your Majesty, if I may. My new invention is simply more efficient than its predecessors, and simultaneously more humane.
KING LOUIS XVI: I have to tell you, you are not selling me with "humane."
INVENTOR: Hear me out, Your Majesty. I myself have witnessed beheadings wherein a single chop was not sufficient to finish the job. At that point, things took an unpleasant turn, the condemned berating his executioner: “Did you ever think of sharpening your axe?” is one thing I recall him saying, blood spurting from his not entirely severed neck. Eventually, with the executioner hacking away, the attendant throng, no longer entertained, became dangerously unruly, pelting the hapless executioner with clods of earth, along verbal abuse, the condemned relegated to a mangled afterthought. Believe me, Your Majesty, that event was no fun for anybody.
KING LOUIS XVI: I guess not. And your contraption?
INVENTOR: (UNROLLING HIS PLANS FOR THE KING’S SCRUTINY) A tall, upright frame from which an angled blade is suspended. The blade is raised with a rope, the condemned’s neck is positioned beneath it, and when the blade is release and rapidly descends, the head is severed from the body in a single and certain chop.
KING LOUIS XVI: (EXAMING THE PLANS AS HE LISTENS) That could be fun.
INVENTOR: I promise you, the “fun factor” is in no way diminished. People will come and cheer and knit.
KING LOUIS XVI: Knit?
INVENTOR: We have no idea why, but they do. But the biggest selling point of my invention? And a thing that’s increasingly popular these days? It’s egalitarian.
KING LOUIS XVI: I’m not following you.
INVENTOR: I am sure Your Majesty is aware of the unrest in the country.
KING LOUIS XVI: Do you really want to bring that up?
INVENTOR: Only in this context. The people are registering a noticeable impatience with the rising inequality between the aristocracy and themselves.
KING LOUIS XVI: (RE: INVENTION) And how exactly would this help?
INVENTOR: I propose, with Your Majesty’s agreement of course, that instead of beheading noblemen and hanging peasants as we do now, we employ my new invention to execute everyone. Think of it, Your Majesty. Every criminal, be they high born or low, loses their life in precisely the same manner.
KING LOUIS XVI: I think you’re on to something. “We all die the same way”? They’re going to love that! You know, this may be exactly what I need to turn things around – “A symbolic gesture.” Show the people that their king is listening to their complaints.
INVENTOR: They despise being broken on the wheel.
KING LOUIS XVI: That’s over! They’ll be executed like the “Big Boys” now. I mean, how egalitarian is that! Tell me, do you have a name for this killing device of yours?
INVENTOR: I was thinking of naming it after you.
KING LOUIS XVI: The “Louis”? (TRYING IT OUT) “You are condemned to the ‘Louis’!” “Take him to the ‘Louis’!” (AFTER A MOMENT) I don’t think so.
INVENTOR: I do have other possible…
KING LOUIS XVI: What’s your name?
INVENTOR: Monsieur Guillotin, Your Majesty.
KING LOUIS XVI: Good, then. We shall name your invention after you. Wait! It amuses me to make it female. Not “Guillotin” then, but “Guillotine.” ‘Convey him to Madame Guillotine’.” That’s perfect! You know, Monsieur, our destinies take many surprising twists and turns. Though conceived as a practical convenience, historians may someday record that the Monarchy of France, and its great but beleaguered king, Louis the Sixteenth, was unexpectedly saved by the invention of the guillotine. None of us can see the future, of course, but I truly believe that to be the case.