The Varieties of Religious Experience was presented in June 2001 for the inaugural performance of "Old Vic / New Voices" at the Old Vic Theatre, London. It was directed by Nina Raine, and performed by Damien Lewis (Narrator / Richard Kane) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Tommy).

The Varieties of Religious Experience

Of all the broken people in New Jersey,
He was the brokenest. Three nights in a row
I watched him sitting hunched on the same bar-stool
Trying to cadge drinks without saying a word,
Which isn't easy. I've seen plenty of people
With easier jobs who probably did them worse.
Even broken you could tell he'd been a big man
And must've broke hard: his face was scarred and grey,
With phony teeth and an upper lip like a camel's,
And you could read how the cheekbones had been crushed,
The nose too. How he looked like he'd been pushed
Up and down New Jersey when they laid the highways,
And after it all, that face was what was left.
Or after it all, New Jersey was what was left.
Whichever it was, when closing time came round,
He set off, limping, alone down the state road
That leads from Millville back to Fortescue.
Where I was driving, though I'd had more than a few.
And I pulled my rented pickup over, beckoned
To offer him a lift. He didn't smile.
Didn't even wave me on. He just kept walking.

So next night in the bar I got the story.

"You bought me a drink, guess you wanna hear the story.
Well, here you go. I used to ride a chopper,
You know, a motorcycle—full slammed dresser
With a 98-inch stroker, S & S,
And Ron Simms bags that'd ground at the canyons,
A full crane cam and panels by Arlen-Ness,
And a coupla Kennedy 80-spoke big wheels.
Cherry-red chassis. She was called the Redhead.
That was a chopper to raise hell with, and on.
I fucking loved her.
                              Anyhow, this one time
I'm taking her out through bumblefuck, cow country,
Down a twisty road with a ravine on the right-hand side,
And every so often a wooden sign, Appel Farms
Fifty Miles,
or Appel Farms Sixty Miles,
Leans up from out the ravine, like a mop in a bucket.
And I'm coming up on the one says Forty Miles,
And I must've hit a patch of gravel, or something,
But there it was: the Redhead pulls up free
And sails off toward the signboard and the ravine.
And that's when I saw God.
                                             But the way it went,
I don't remember anything for a week.
Then I wake up. And there's a doctor there,
And he's got some other dude in a coat and tie,
And he's got the chief of Millville police there too:
Smug little cocksucker, that one, Richard Kane.
And I'm in a cast, can't even turn my head,
And my arms and legs are sticking in the air,
And I ache like my bones've been chewed on by a dog.
Chief says to me, Tommy, know what you were doing
When you hit that patch?
I says, Riding my bike.
Is there a law against that one, Ossifer Dick?

And I realize that as I'm talking I got no teeth.
He says, No, Tom, how fast you were going, I meant.
And when I don't answer, he just says to me, Ninety.
Ninety on a road made for twenty. A road made for cows.

I say, If you were there to clock me at ninety,
Why the fuck didn't you stop me and do me a favor?

He says, Nobody clocked you, no-one was there.
We know how fast you were going from the imprint
Your teeth left in that wooden signboard you hit.

No shit. They showed me it later, hunk of wood
With a big dent from my head, and there below
This little scooped-out row, like a fossil shell—
My teeth, but delicate, like they got pressed in wax.
Then the doctor explains how I had died on the table,
How I bruised my heart in the accident, blah blah;
How lucky I was the Redhead caught fire and blew up,
Cause that attracted a coupla guys out fishing
Way down Cohansey Creek. Wasn't for them,
Nobody'd've found me till one of the farmers came
To see if he'd lost a cow where the birds were circling.

So they leave me with the guy in the coat and tie,
Who's a therapist. Who wants to know how I'll cope.
And all of a sudden I remember what all happened.
I remember how I saw God. I talk about that.
He looks at me kind of funny, but smiles, and tells me
There's a group for people who've been through this same thing.
Now I don't go in for groups. I'm not the type.
But this sounds like some real shit, know what I mean?
Of course I want to meet other people who seen Him.
So I go to the group. Worst fucking night of my life.
Cause you know what? They're crazy, all of them,
A whole federation of frigging fruits and nuts,
That get their jollies pretending they been through
Something as awful as the things I been through;
There's freaks that think God phones them up at night,
And blue-haired ladies think He's got their cat,
Talking about the clouds and the warm golden light,
And former drunks who say, God told me to stop drinking!
That's what one of them says. And I'm just thinking
Funny how, Vietnam, God don't say nothing,
But He sounds off when this dude has a beer.

Just poor deluded motherfuckers, every last one.
You know how I know? Not one of them remembered
What did He look like. I remembered, though.
Not like that blue-eyed pansy in the nightgown
They show you in the pictures. He was dark and ugly,
With a broken nose, and lots of crinkly black hair.
His arms were big, though, like a construction worker.
He looked like a biker, a Hell's Angel or something.
Yeah, I know...
                       But he talked to me the whole time.
Though I don't remember a single thing he said.
His voice was like music. Not like it was pretty—
It wasn't—but 'cause I followed it along
And it made sense, somehow, without meaning anything.
I listened to him the way a dog'll listen.
I missed the words but I caught the tone of his voice
And the tone of his voice was mean. He reamed me out,
That righteous son-of-a-bitch, like I was his bitch.
And then he left. Didn't vanish into the light.
He just kind of wandered out of my line of sight.
And I couldn't turn my head, cause by that time
They'd got my neck and my shoulders in that cast.
Yeah, it ticked me off to hear these losers talking
About their clouds and the golden light, like God
Would do himself up like a frigging Hallmark card.
I don't get mad about it now. I know they believe
They saw something. I know it was real to them,
Even if it wasn't really real. What's that to me?
No skin off my pecker. I don't make any claims.
And I don't do shit for attention. I'm just a guy
With a fucked-up face and a set of plastic teeth
Who walks where he's gotta go. What could I do?
Got rods and plates in my arm, a plate in my head.
I'm useless as tits on a boar-hog now, no good
For anything but drinking. Smoke a little grass,
Sometimes I pick up a whore if I got the money.
And I tip her extra if I got the money.
But I don't ride a chopper anymore. You know.
I tried getting on one once, at a trade-show,
But it gave me the all-over shakes, and when I looked
My knuckles'd gone bone-white the way I gripped her."


Performance inquiries should be addressed to the author's agent: Nick Harris, A.P. Watt Ltd., 20 John St., London WC1N 2DR / [email protected]

Peter Morris has twice received the Sunday Times Playwriting Prize in London, and has twice attended the O'Neill Playwrights Conference in the USA. His play The Age of Consent was staged at the Bush Theatre, London, in January 2002. It has since been staged in Rome, Berlin, Reykjavik and Tokyo, and is published in the UK by Methuen.