from cormac mccarthy’s play-as-novel, the sunset limited

Cormac McCarthy

The Sunset Limited


This is a room in a tenement building in a black ghetto in New York City. There is a kitchen with a stove and a large refrigerator. A door to the outer hallway and another presumably to a bedroom. The hallway door is fitted with a bizarre collection of locks and bars. There is a cheap Formica table in the room and two chrome and plastic chairs. There is a drawer in the table. On the table is a Bible and a newspaper. A pair of glasses. A pad and pencil. A large black man is sitting in one chair (stage right) and in the other a middle aged white man dressed in running pants and athletic shoes. He wears a T shirt and the jacket, which matches the pants, hangs on the chair behind him.



BLACK. So what am I supposed to do with you, Professor?

WHITE. Why are you supposed to do anything?

BLACK. I done told you. This ain’t none of my doin. I left out of here this mornin to go to work you wasn’t no part of my plans at all. But here you is.

WHITE. It doesn’t mean anything. Everything that happens doesn’t mean something else.

BLACK. Mm hm. It don’t.

WHITE. No. It doesn’t.

BLACK. What’s it mean then?

WHITE. It doesn’t mean anything. You run into people and maybe some of them are in trouble or whatever but it doesn’t mean that you’re responsible for them.

BLACK. Mm hm.

WHITE. Anyway, people who are always looking out for perfect strangers are very often people who won’t look out for the ones they’re supposed to look out for. In my opinion. If you’re just doing what you’re supposed to then you don’t get to be a hero.

BLACK. And that would be me.

WHITE. I don’t know. Would it?

BLACK. Well, I can see how they might be some truth in that. But in this particular case I might say I sure didn’t know what sort of person I was supposed to be on the lookout for or what I was supposed to do when I found him. In this particular case they wasn’t but one thing to go by.

WHITE. And that was?

BLACK. That was that there he is standin there. And I can look at him and I can say: Well, he don’t look like my brother. But there he is. Maybe I better look again.

WHITE. And that’s what you did.

BLACK. Well, you was kindly hard to ignore. I got to say that your approach was pretty direct.

WHITE. I didn’t approach you. I didn’t even see you.

BLACK. Mm hm.

WHITE. I should go. I’m beginning to get on your nerves.

BLACK. No you ain’t. Don’t pay no attention to me. You seem like a sweet man, Professor. I reckon what I don’t understand is how come you to get yourself in such a fix.

WHITE. Yeah.

BLACK. Are you okay? Did you sleep last night?


BLACK. When did you decide that today was the day? Was they somethin special about it?

WHITE. No. Well. Today is my birthday. But I certainly don’t regard that as special.

BLACK. Well happy birthday, Professor.

WHITE. Thank you.

BLACK. So you seen your birthday was comin up and that seemed like the right day.

WHITE. Who knows? Maybe birthdays are dangerous. Like Christmas. Ornaments hanging from the trees, wreaths from the doors, and bodies from the steam pipes all over

BLACK. Mm. Don’t say much for Christmas, does it?

WHITE. Christmas is not what it used to be.

BLACK. I believe that to be a true statement. I surely do.

WHITE. I’ve got to go. (He gets up and takes his jacket off the back of the chair and lifts it over his shoulders and then puts his arms in the sleeves rather than putting his arms in first one at a time.)

BLACK. You always put your coat on like that?

WHITE. What’s wrong with the way I put my coat on?

BLACK. I didn’t say they was nothin wrong with it. I just wondered if that was your regular method.

WHITE. I don’t have a regular method. I just put it on.

BLACK. Mm hm.

WHITE. It’s what, effeminate?


WHITE. What?

BLACK. Nothin. I’m just settin here studyin the ways of professors.

WHITE. Yeah. Well, I’ve got to go. (The black gets up.)

BLACK. Well. Let me get my coat.

WHITE. Your coat?

BLACK. Yeah.

WHITE. Where are you going?

BLACK. Goin with you.

WHITE. What do you mean? Going with me where?

BLACK. Goin with you wherever you goin.

WHITE. No you’re not.

BLACK. Yeah I am.

WHITE. I’m going home.

BLACK. All right.

WHITE. All right? You’re not going home with me.

BLACK. Sure I am. Let me get my coat.

WHITE. You can’t go home with me.

BLACK. Why not?

WHITE. You can’t.

BLACK. What. You can go home with me but I can’t go home with you?

WHITE. No. I mean no, that’s not it. I just need to go home.

BLACK. You live in a apartment?


BLACK. What. They don’t let black folks in there?

WHITE. No. I mean of course they do. Look. No more jokes. I’ve got to go. I’m very tired.

BLACK. Well I just hope we don’t run into no hassle about you gettin me in there.

WHITE. You’re serious.

BLACK. Oh I think you know I’m serious.

WHITE. You can’t be serious.

BLACK. I’m as serious as a heart attack.

WHITE. Why are you doing this?

BLACK. Me? I ain’t got no choice in the matter.

WHITE. Of course you have a choice.

BLACK. No I ain’t.

WHITE. Who appointed you my guardian angel?

BLACK. Let me get my coat.

WHITE. Answer the question.

BLACK. You know who appointed me. I didn’t ask for you to leap into my arms down in the subway this mornin.

WHITE. I didn’t leap into your arms.

BLACK. You didn’t?

WHITE. No. I didn’t.

BLACK. Well how did you get there then? (The professor stands with his head lowered. He looks at the chair and then turns and goes and sits down in it.) What. Now we ain’t gain?

WHITE. Do you really think that Jesus is in this room?

BLACK. No. I don’t think he’s in this room.

WHITE. You don’t?

BLACK. I know he’s in this room. (The professor folds his hands at the table and lowers his head. The black pulls out the other chair and sits again.) It’s the way you put it, Professor. Be like me askin you do you think you got your coat on. You see what I’m sayin?

WHITE. It’s not the same thing. It’s a matter of agreement. If you and I say that I have my coat on and Cecil says that I’m naked and I have green skin and a tail then we might want to think about where we should put Cecil so that he won’t hurt himself


BLACK. Who’s Cecil?

WHITE. He’s not anybody. He’s just a hypothetical … There’s not any Cecil. He’s just a person I made up to illustrate a point.

BLACK. Made up.



WHITE. We’re not going to get into this again are we? It’s not the same thing. The fact that I made Cecil up.

BLACK. But you did make him up.


BLACK. And his view of things don’t count.

WHITE. No. That’s why I made him up. I could have changed it around. I could have made you the one that didn’t think I was wearing a coat.

BLACK. And was green and all that shit you said.


BLACK. But you didn’t.


BLACK. You loaded it off on Cecil.


BLACK. But Cecil can’t defend hisself cause the fact that he ain’t in agreement with everybody else makes his word no good. I mean aside from the fact that you made him up and he’s green and everthing.

WHITE. He’s not the one who’s green. I am. Where is this going?

BLACK. I’m just tryin to find out about Cecil.

WHITE. I don’t think so. Can you see Jesus?

BLACK. No. I can’t see him.

WHITE. But you talk to him.

BLACK. I don’t miss a day.

WHITE. And he talks to you.

BLACK. He has talked to me. Yes.

WHITE. Do you hear him? Like out loud?

BLACK. Not out loud. I don’t hear a voice. Idon’t hear my own, for that matter. But I have heard him.

WHITE. Well why couldn’t Jesus just be in your head?

BLACK. He is in my head.

WHITE. Well I don’t understand what it is that you’re trying to tell me.

BLACK. I know you don’t, honey. Look. The first thing you got to understand is that I ain’t got a original thought in my head. If it ain’t got the lingerin scent of divinity to it then I ain’t interested.

WHITE. The lingering scent of divinity.

BLACK. Yeah. You like that?

WHITE. It’s not bad.

BLACK. I heard it on the radio. Black preacher. But the point is I done tried it the other way. And I don’t mean chippied, neither. Runnin blindfold through the woods with the bit tween your teeth. Oh man. Didn’t I try it though. If you can find a soul that give it a better shot than me I’d like to meet him. I surely would. And what do you reckon it got me?

WHITE. I don’t know. What did it get you?

BLACK. Death in life. That’s what it got me.

WHITE. Death in life.

BLACK. Yeah. Walkin around death. Too dead to even know enough to lay down.

WHITE. I see.

BLACK. I don’t think so. But let me ask you this question.

WHITE. All right.

BLACK. Have you ever read this book?

WHITE. I’ve read parts of it. I’ve read in it

BLACK. Have you ever read it?

WHITE. I read the Book of Job.

BLACK. Have. You. Ever. Read. It.


BLACK. But you is read a lot of books.


BLACK. How many would you say you read?

WHITE. I’ve no idea.

BLACK. Ball park.

WHITE. I don’t know. Two a week maybe. A hundred a year. For close to forty years. (The black takes up his pencil and licks it and falls to squinting at his pad, adding numbers laboriously, his tongue in the corner of his mouth, one hand on his head.) Forty times a hundred is four thousand.

BLACK. (Almost laughing.) I’m just messin with you, Professor. Give me a number. Any number you like. And I’ll give you forty times it back.

WHITE. Twenty six.

BLACK. A thousand and forty.

WHITE. A hundred and eighteen.

BLACK. Four thousand seven hundred and twenty.

WHITE. Four thousand seven hundred and twenty.

BLACK. Yeah.

WHITE. The answer is the question.

BLACK. Say what?

WHITE. That’s your new number.

BLACK. Four thousand seven hundred and twenty?


BLACK. That’s a big number, Professor.

HITE. Yes it is.

BLACK. Do you know the answer?

WHITE. No. I don’t.

BLACK. It’s a hundred and eighty eight thousand and eight hundred. (They sit.)

WHITE. Let me have that. (The black slides the pad and pencil across the table. The professor does the figures and looks at them and looks at the black. He slides the pencil and paper back across the table and sits back.) How do you do that?

BLACK. Numbers is the black man’s friend. Butter and eggs. Crap table. You quick with numbers you can put the mojo on you brother. Confiscate the contents of his pocketbook. You get a lot of time to practice that shit in the jailhouse.

WHITE. I see.

BLACK. But let’s get back to all them books you done read. You think maybe you read four thousand books.

WHITE. Probably. Maybe more than that.

BLACK. But you ain’t read this one.

WHITE. No. Not the whole book. No.

BLACK. Why is that?

WHITE. I don’t know.

BLACK. What would you say is the best book that ever was wrote?

WHITE. I have no idea.

BLACK. Take a shot.

WHITE. There are a lot of good books.

BLACK. Well pick one.

WHITE. Maybe War and Peace.

BLACK. All right. You think that’s a better book than this one?

WHITE. I don’t know. They’re different kinds of books.

BLACK. This War and Peace book. That’s a book that somebody made up, right?

WHITE. Well, yes.

BLACK. So is that how it’s different from this book?

WHITE. Not really. In my view they’re both made up.

BLACK. Mm. Ain’t neither one of em true.

WHITE. Not in the historical sense. No.

BLACK. So what would be a true book?

WHITE. I suppose maybe a history book. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire might be one. At least the events would be actual events. They would be things that had happened.

BLACK. Mm hm. You think that book is as good a book as this book here?

WHITE. The Bible.

BLACK. The Bible.

WHITE. I don’t know. Gibbon is a cornerstone. It’s a major book.

BLACK. And a true book. Don’t forget that.

WHITE. And a true book. Yes.

BLACK. But is it as good a book.

WHITE. I don’t know. I don’t know as you can make a comparison. You’re talking about apples and pears.

BLACK. No we ain’t talkin bout no apples and pears, Professor. We talkin bout books. Is that Decline and Fall book as good a book as this book here. Answer the question.

WHITE. I might have to say no.

BLACK. It’s more true but it ain’t as good.

WHITE. If you like.

BLACK. It ain’t what I like. It’s what you said.

WHITE. All right. (The black lays the Bible back down on the table.)

BLACK. It used to say here on the cover fore it got wore off: The greatest book ever written. You think that might be true?

WHITE. It might.

BLACK. You read good books.

WHITE. I try to. Yes.

BLACK. But not the best book. Why is that?

WHITE. I need to go.