Janice McNab The Ghost Artist - Cover

The work of British writer Chris Lee has been performed around the world. In 1998 he won the Stewart Parker New Playwright Award for The Electrocution of Children. The Map Maker’s Sorrow is published by Faber and Faber, and Shallow Slumber by Methuen. Lee writes: “I love the cool grey and white colours of the painting and the mysterious figures on the mountain, which is of course a volcano.”


Man, Impossibly old
Woman, Somewhat younger


The ridge of a volcano, probably Mount Etna. Snowdrifts.

WOMAN: I have walked through the snow. I have crawled across shattered rocks and ice. I have no breath and my feet are bleeding. My hair is matted by the wind and my nails are black.

MAN: There was no fire. All the fires had gone out. There was no fire and there was no hope of fire.

WOMAN: We needed you. But you had left us. We dreamed of you. We shouted your name and we cursed and prayed. We grew desperate.

MAN: You know nothing of despair.

WOMAN: We had all forgotten what you looked like. We had all forgotten you.

MAN: I was here. All along.

WOMAN: And I was chosen to go up. Into the great valley and beyond. I was chosen to climb up to the clouds and…

MAN: And?

WOMAN: Ask you to return.

MAN: Never.

WOMAN: Beg you to return.

MAN: Not possible.

WOMAN: Drag you, if necessary.

MAN: You need to rest.

WOMAN: If I rest I will die. I will fall asleep in the snow and I will not wake up. I will be lost, drifting, quietly, softly, and death will kiss my eyes.

MAN: I will watch over you. Rest.

WOMAN: You will kill me.

MAN: Come and watch the fire with me. Come here and look.

WOMAN: I have no strength.

MAN: The fire will revive you. I promise.

WOMAN: Do you promise not to kill me?

MAN: I have never killed.

WOMAN: You frighten me.

MAN: Good. The world is frightening. Now come.

WOMAN: This is the beginning of my defeat.

MAN: Stare into the belly of the earth. That is where fire was born and that is where fire hides. It is out of my reach. It taunts me. Do I have the courage to climb down inside the burning gut of this mountain and steal the flames? It may consume me. I lie here and in my mind I rip the heat from the liquid rock. I am a hero and I return to you with the gift of fire. I restore to you all the warmth that was taken from you. I am dreaming the mountain, and I am part of its dream.

WOMAN: I see other people in the mist. I have called to them. They do not reply.

MAN: Oh yes, there are ghosts that walk the ridges and the narrow paths, ghosts from all the ages.

WOMAN: I hate ghosts. What use to us are ghosts?

MAN: They are harmless. They have no power.

WOMAN: You must climb into the mountain.

MAN: I will die.

WOMAN: Then come back with me.

MAN: I am the witness to fire. I am the only witness. If I leave then the fire will go out.

WOMAN: How can the fire depend on you?

MAN: The mountain has chosen me.

WOMAN: The mountain has chosen a foolish old man?

MAN: Nothing exists that is not held in the world by the eyes of at least one living soul. That is why the fire was lost. We forgot to look, we forgot to keep looking.

WOMAN: If we cannot take the fire then it is of no use. Leave it. Return with me. We can live without fire.

MAN: For a year perhaps. For a generation. But eventually the ice will return. The great rivers of ice. They will unfurl across the land, crushing everything. And we will dwindle to a tiny shivering herd, falling, one by one.

WOMAN: Maybe we have no choice.

MAN: I will find the courage.

WOMAN: If you have not found it yet, then I doubt it is there to be found.

MAN: You have been sent to me. You have brought courage.


MAN: At night the mountain sends me visions. I see angels in the fire. They rise up and they show me the truth. The mountain breathes and they are carried on its breath into the future. And there in the sky, I see it. White hot with violence. The future.

WOMAN: So. We burn or we freeze. How lucky we are.

MAN: I look into the faces of the angels. They are sad and beautiful and weeping. They turn their backs on the burning agony of the future and they watch me. They pity me. And they hang in the air. Radiant with sorrow. Until the day breaks and their light dissolves.

WOMAN: Your mind has crumbled.

MAN: I do not know what it means, I am in torment, but also, I have comfort.

WOMAN: I will go back and tell them. He is mad.

MAN: You will not go.

WOMAN: He has visions of angels.

MAN: I have learned many things.

WOMAN: You have learned nothing.

MAN: I will tell you.

WOMAN: No wisdom, no knowledge, nothing. You are broken and spent.

MAN: The dust is made of rock. The ash is made of dust. The fire is made of ash.

WOMAN: He mumbles in the snow.

MAN: I will tell you about the dust. About one speck of dust. It will flow with the melt water. And water will carry it to the sea. And it will sink down to the bottom of the sea. And over many years the weight of the sea will press it together with all the other pieces of dust. Rock will be created again from its fragments. And the earth will open its jaws and suck in the rock. And the rock will move inside the earth until it finds a mountain of fire. And the mountain will explode. And the fire will breathe over the land and the rock will come back to where it started. Ready to be broken down again, ready to be dust.

WOMAN: And the angels told you this did they?

MAN: Don’t you believe me?

WOMAN: I don’t believe in angels.

MAN: But you do believe in ghosts.

WOMAN: They have circled us.

MAN: They have come to gaze into the open mouth of fire.

WOMAN: Would a ghost not descend for us into the mountain?

MAN: There is no substance in a ghost. They could not carry the fire.

WOMAN: But fire does not weigh anything. It is burning air.

MAN: And still too heavy for a ghost.

WOMAN: Why do they stare into the fire?

MAN: It helps them forget.

WOMAN: When I am a ghost I will not forget. I will cling onto every memory until they are ripped from me.

MAN: You are a long way from death.

WOMAN: I am fading.

MAN: Your spirit is strong.

WOMAN: I am cold.

MAN: Rub your hands in the snow.

WOMAN: I can’t feel my hands.

MAN: Rub them in the snow.

WOMAN: And soon it will be night.

MAN: Then you will see the angels.

WOMAN: I should push you into the fire.

MAN: Do, then my burning body would be a torch.

WOMAN: How could I carry it?

MAN: The angels will know.

WOMAN: The angels, the mountain, the dust! We looked to you, we relied on you. The Philosopher. But you tricked us. You have no wisdom.

MAN: Did I ever claim to have wisdom?

WOMAN: I hate you.

MAN: You cannot help your feelings.

WOMAN: I was taught to respect you and now I hate you.

MAN: You have learned something at least.

WOMAN: I have learned how to let life shiver away on the cold mountain.

MAN: Yes, and you have learned that the mountain contains everything.

WOMAN: What good is that to me?

MAN: Look into the mountain now. See how beautiful it is. Let the fire warm your thoughts at least.

WOMAN: I so want to sleep.

MAN: Look into the fire.

WOMAN: I cannot save you.

MAN: There are two of us now. Two of us to keep the fire alive.

WOMAN: Don’t make me part of your madness.

MAN: You were sent to me.

WOMAN: I am no vision, no angel.

MAN: But the ghosts are waiting for us.

WOMAN: Waiting for us?

MAN: They gather because they know it is time.

WOMAN: You are going to descend?

MAN: We are going to descend. Together.

WOMAN: That is not what I came for.

MAN: We will carry the fire inside us. We will float on the fire. We will fill the angels with joy. We will descend, and the mountain will return us to our people. The mountain will send us home with its savage breath. We are dust. We are rock. We are fire.

WOMAN: We are dead.

MAN: Come.


WOMAN: Let me go.

MAN: The angels are here. They will help us.

WOMAN: There are no angels.

MAN: They will guide us.

WOMAN: There are only ghosts.

MAN: You must not disappoint them.

WOMAN: And we will be ghosts too.

MAN: Think of the heat. Think of the power.

WOMAN: There was no fire. And we learned not to wish for fire. We clung to each other and the winter did not kill us. We are hardened but we do not dream of fire. It divided us. Those who held the fire kept it for themselves. They used it to fracture and to rule. It was you that we missed, not the fire. It was your wisdom that we craved, not the warmth. And now you are a slave to it. You peer over the edge like a thief. Your mind is lost in its flickering. I was sent here out of love and I find you cowering in fear. We do not need you. We have outgrown you. Fall into your mountain and die with your angels. The ghosts will weep on your grave.

She breaks free.

MAN: You must not betray me.

WOMAN: I must leave you.

MAN: Then the world will freeze to death.


WOMAN: The snow fell. And the fire in the mountain was forgotten. But we did not die. We will not die because we had no wise men. We had no philosophers to destroy us.