The Second Mrs Kong


Explore Harrison Birtwistle’s The Second Mrs Kong.

Act I

Scene 1
An island in the world of shadows where the dead live

Anubis the jackal-headed boatman brings the souls of the dead to the world of shadows. He feeds off their passions and their dreams.

At his command, some of the dead relive their memories. The millionaire Mr Dollarama finds his wife Inanna in bed with her guru Swami Zumzum. Orpheus looks back and loses Eurydice. Vermeer the painter sees Pearl in his mind- ‘a face like music, partly now and partly remembered’ – and falls in love with her.

Scene 2
Vermeer’s memory

At the request of the dead, Vermeer relives the moment when he first met Pearl in Delft, 1664.

As the dead watch, a monstrous messenger delivers a print of the film King Kong. Kong was taken to the World of Shadows by mistake in 1933. When the puppet ape died in the film. Kong himself knows he is an idea that will not die. But he is not sure what he is an idea of.

Meanwhile, in Delft, 1664, Vermeer cannot find the model he needs: ‘When shall I see it, this face I’ve never seen?‘ Pearl comes collecting for the church. He invites her to sit for him and begins the painting Girl with a Pearl Earring. She looks into the studio mirror. The mirror speaks. She will carry Pearl into the future where there ‘waits a king who never was…a Kong who never was’. Pearl is intrigued. Kong cries out from the World of Shadows. She hears his ‘lost and lonely‘ call.

Vermeer finishes the painting, irritated at her lack of interest in him. The memory ends.

Scene 3
Kong’s room, the world of shadows

Kong watches the film and realises that he is not ‘the giant head, the giant hand, the little puppet moving on the screen‘. Inanna comes to him, hoping for love. Now that Kong has heard Pearl’s voice, however, he can think of no one else.

Scene 4
Pearl, Pearl the Vermeer Girl

Now in the twentieth century, the painting Girl with a Pearl Earring has become a popular icon, widely available.

Scene 5
Penthouse flat, Mammon House

Pearl has become part of the furnishings of a stockbroker’s flat. She puts on the television and catches a rerun of King Kong. But this Kong is not the one whose voice she has heard, this Kong is a puppet. The mirror enlightens her: she heard the ‘wild and wordless, Lost and lonely child of all the world‘, the idea of Kong. Pearl uses the computer to search for Kong. They fall in love. Kong vows to find her.

The dead have been watching from the World of Shadows. A quarrel between Mr Dollararna, Inanna and Swami Zumzum turns into a fight. In the confusion, Kong escapes and sets off to find Pearl among the living. He brings along Orpheus to act as his pilot.

Act II

Scene 1
At sea

Kong and Orpheus are lost. Kong asks Orpheus the way to the world of the living, but Orpheus tells him: ‘There are no places, only dreams of places, only the endless voyage on the soul’s dark sea’. They are attacked by four temptations – Doubt, Fear, Despair and Terror. Orpheus loses his head; Kong remains resolute: ‘Beyond the soul’s dark sea … there waits my Pearl’. Kong rescues the head of Orpheus.

Anubis and some of the dead have followed in pursuit. Inanna disparages Pearl to Dollarama, ‘all she’s ever done is hang on walls … she’s two dimensional’. Vermeer defends her.

Scene 2
Customs barrier, a tunnel

The sphinx, Madame Lena, controls the customs barrier between the two worlds. She tries to seduce Kong and is disappointed when he runs off to find Pearl. Her riddle ‘What has two hearts and one desire?‘ remains unanswered. The dead follow behind.

Scene 3
On the road to the city

Kong and the head of Orpheus lose confidence in their quest for Pearl and Eurydice: ‘Memory grows dim‘. The song of Orpheus charms a telephone and Kong calls Pearl to get directions. They remember falling in love.

A menacing figure challenges Kong. ‘Read me and weep: I am the Death of Kong‘. As an idea. however, Kong refuses to die. They fight, and the dead place bets on the outcome. Inanna hopes Kong will be killed and so return to the World of Shadows-and to her. Kong wins. He now knows who he is: ‘I am the wild and wordless, lost and lonely child of all the world‘, an idea that will never die.

All her life and all her death Inanna has wanted something and it never, never happened…

Scene 4
Penthouse Flat, Mammon House

Pearl waits in a state of uncertainty. She feels ‘so nowhere and so not at all‘. Looking in the mirror, she cannot find her own reflection. Kong arrives. This is the moment they have hoped for, waited for: ‘there is nothing in the world of shadows, nothing in the world above, nothing more real than our love‘. Kong and Pearl try to touch each other. The mirror intervenes: ‘Look at me, see in my silver-shadowed waters yourselves together and apart forever. You cannot have each other.’ Inanna, Dollarama, the head of Orpheus and Eurydice try to intercede but are helpless.

The mirror tells them ‘it is not love that moves the world from night to morning…is the longing for what cannot be‘. Pearl and Kong’s love cannot be fulfilled.

They are together and apart forever – Kong ‘the lost and lonely child of all the world‘ and Pearl, ‘the face that Vermeer painted, forever partly now and partly remembered‘.

They remember when they first fell in love.

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