The Retreat from Moscow

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  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2004-03-23
  • Publisher: Anchor
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How well do we know the people we marry? Is it wrong to decide it's time to be honest? Is love enough to save a family? In The Retreat from Moscow, William Nicholson, the celebrated author of Shadowlands, tells the powerful story of a husband who decides to be truthful in his marriage, and of the wife and son whose lives will never be the same again. Edward and Alice have been married for thirty-three years. He is a teacher at a boys school, perfectly at home with his daily crossword and lately engrossed in reading about Napoleon's costly invasion of Moscow. She is an observant Catholic, exacting and opinionated, and has been collecting poems about lost love for a new anthology. Jamie, their diffident thirty-two year old son, is visiting for the weekend when Edward announces he has met another woman. With the coiled intensity of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing and the embracing empathy of Edward Albee's best family dramas, The Retreat from Moscow shines a breathtakingly natural light on the fallout of a shattered marriage.

Author Biography

William Nicholson is the author of the play <i>Shadowlands, </i>which was made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. He received an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay for <i>Shadowlands</i> and has written numerous other screenplays as well as a forthcoming novel, <b>The Society of Others</b><i>, </i>and a trilogy of children’s fantasy adventure novels. He lives in London.



The stage in darkness.

Two armchairs. A table with three upright chairs. A sink, cooker, fridge, and cupboard.

Three people sit motionless in the darkness. edward, a schoolteacher in his late fifties, in one armchair. His wife, alice, about the same age, in the other. Their son, jamie, in his early thirties, at the table.

All three actors remain onstage throughout. When one character is no longer present in a scene, he becomes still, and the lights go down on him. The audience can still see him, but the other characters cannot. The shadowed actor sits or stands, suspended in time, and does not react to what takes place around him, until the lights return him to the action.

Lights come up on
EDWARD. He reads from a book.

EDWARD: "As men dropped in the intense cold, their bodies were stripped of clothing by their own comrades, and left naked in the snow, still alive."

(Lights come up on JAMIE, sipping at a mug of coffee, listening.)

"Others, having lost or burned their shoes, were marching with bare feet and legs. The frozen skin and muscles were exfoliating themselves, like successive layers of wax statues. The bones were exposed, but being frozen, were completely insensitive to pain. Some officers, suffering from diarrhoea, found themselves unable to do their trousers up. I myself helped one of these unfortunates to put his asterisk-asterisk-asterisk back, and button himself up. He was crying like a child."

JAMIE: I wonder what word he used.

EDWARD: Who knows? Something French.

JAMIE: Yes. I suppose it would be.

EDWARD: A surprisingly large number of the officers kept diaries. Over a hundred and fifty have survived. Remarkable, really, given the conditions on the retreat.

JAMIE: How many died?

EDWARD: Napoleon marched four hundred fifty thousand men across the Niemen. Less than twenty thousand came back. How was the drive down?

jamie: Not bad. I left just after five.

(Both check their watches, making the same movement.)

EDWARD: An hour and three-quarters. I wouldn't have thought there was that much traffic on a Saturday evening.

JAMIE: It took twenty minutes just getting through Tunbridge Wells.

EDWARD: Tunbridge Wells is slow.

JAMIE: I think I might have a bath.

EDWARD: Yes. Do.

JAMIE: Wash off the London grime.

(He rises, and takes his coffee mug to the sink.)

So everything's alright, then?

EDWARD: Much as ever. And you?

JAMIE: Busy.

EDWARD: Let's see if we can find a moment. Before you go back.

JAMIE: Sure.

(EDWARD returns to his book. Lights go down on him.)

(Lights come up on ALICE. JAMIE walks across to stand behind her chair.)

ALICE: It seems to me as I grow older that people become ruder. They say nobody's taught manners any more, but I don't think it's that. I think middle-aged women have become invisible. You have to be young, or rich, or beautiful, to be noticed at all. I don't quite know how to cope with it, except by getting angry, which I do more or less all the time these days. I've been having trouble with my printer. Did I tell you?

JAMIE: No. What's the problem?

ALICE: I dropped it.

JAMIE: Ah. They don't like that.

ALICE: "Sudden and swift and light as that
The ties gave
And he learned of finalities
Besides the grave."

JAMIE: Auden?

ALICE: Robert Frost. A strange little poem called "The Impulse." I'm putting it in my anthology under Lost Love.

JAMIE: How's the anthology coming along?

ALICE: Well, it isn't, really, until I can get the printer fixed. Did you come down alone?

JAMIE: Yes. Have you got someone to look at it?

ALICE: Darling, there isn't anyone. People don't fix things any more, they throw them away.

I rang every shop in the Yellow Pages, but all they wanted to do was sell me a new one. I found a man at last who said, rather grudgingly, "Bring it in," so I drove all the way to this hellish industrial estate, where there was this hellish computer warehouse, and I lugged the damned machine in through one of those ferocious doors that try to crush you, and there was one little man, all alone in this vast space, sitting at a keyboard, going tick-tick-tick. No attempt to help me as I struggled in. Not a word. Not a look. After a while I said, "I'm a customer. Aren't you supposed to serve me?" He looked up and said, "Well?" Just, "Well?" I said, "My printer's not working." I showed him the page I'd brought in to explain the problem. I'd been trying to print out a Browning poem, the one that ends

"Just when I seem about to learn
Where is the thread, now off again,
The old trick only I discern
Infinite passion, and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn."

That's going into Lost Love, too. It's turning out to be by far the largest section in the anthology. Anyway, the printer had left off the first two words or so of every line, which made the poem rather modern, but not as good. The man in the warehouse said, "That's not a printer problem. The printer's fine. It's what you're doing that's wrong. You're the problem." He actually said it, in those very words. "You're the problem." "How do you know?" I said. "You haven't looked at the printer. You haven't even switched it on." "I know," he said, "because if a printer prints wrong, it's not the printer's fault." "Are you the printer's mother?" I asked him. "Are you telling me that printers never go wrong?" "I'm telling you," he said, "that if the printer's printing, then the printer's fine." "But it's not fine," I said. "It's not printing right. Well, actually, it is printing right, but it's not printing left." He didn't have an answer to that. He went back to going tick-tick-tick. "Excuse me," I said. "I'm not finished. I want you to look at my printer." He paid me no attention whatsoever. So I picked up my printer, to take it over to where he sat, and I dropped it.

It made a kind of tinkling noise. He looked up when he heard that, and smiled a cruel little smile, and said, "Would you like me to sell you a new printer?" I was so angry I wanted to hit him. So I said to him, "You're the kind of man who doesn't love anybody and nobody loves you. You've got no friends, and your wife hates you, and your children never talk to you." He looked quite surprised for a moment or two. Then he said, "Do you know me from somewhere?"

JAMIE: Oh, Ma.

ALICE: What do you think I should do?

JAMIE: Buy another printer.

ALICE: I feel such a fool.

JAMIE: Is it alright if I have a bath?

ALICE: Yes, of course, darling. When are you going back?

JAMIE: After lunch tomorrow.

ALICE: Thank you for coming. I know how busy you are.

JAMIE: Don't be silly.

(Lights fade on JAMIE, and come up on EDWARD. He looks up from his book.)

EDWARD: They found Moscow empty, so they plundered it, which meant they were followed on the retreat by an enormous baggage train. This in turn was followed by raiding parties of Cossacks. When men were wounded, or frostbitten, and could no longer walk, orders were given to carry them on the baggage wagons. This slowed the wagons down, of course, and reduced the chances that the baggage train would make it to Smolensk.

So the wagon-drivers looked out for especially rutted ground, and then drove fast over it, so that the wounded would be jolted off the wagons, without anyone noticing. Once left behind on the road, they froze to death. This was understood to be an accident. It was an unspoken conspiracy, by the strong, against the weak. Nobody looked back.

ALICE: It's horrible, Edward. Why do you go on reading it?

EDWARD: It is horrible. But it's curiously compelling, too. I suppose because it exposes the way human beings behave in extremis. When it's a matter of survival, people show no mercy.

ALICE: What utter rot. History is full of people laying down their lives for others. What about Jesus Christ?

EDWARD: Oh, well. Jesus Christ.

ALICE: Don't just sit there and say, "Oh well, Jesus Christ."

EDWARD: Yes, but he was God. I mean, he knew he'd rise again.

ALICE: What difference does that make?

EDWARD: Well, he would have known it wasn't the end.

ALICE: So you think that made it easy for him?

EDWARD: No, not quite that

ALICE: You try being crucified. See how you like it.

EDWARD: Well, of course, I wouldn't.

ALICE: Then stop talking such rot. Honestly, Edward, I hope you don't talk rot like that in your Religious Studies classes. Has Jamie said anything to you?

EDWARD: About what?

ALICE: About anything.

EDWARD: He told me how long it had taken him to drive down.

ALICE: He can't have.

EDWARD: Why not?

ALICE: Because it's such a stupid and pointless thing to talk about. Why would he say anything so ridiculously dull?

EDWARD: I asked him.

ALICE: You asked him?


ALICE: You asked him how long it had taken him to drive down here?

EDWARD: Something like that.

ALICE: Why? Do you care?

EDWARD: People have conversations like that. It has its uses.

ALICE: Why? What uses?

EDWARD: Oh, I don't know. Settling down. That sort of thing.

ALICE: Edward, Jamie is your son. Your only child. You see him maybe once every three months. And all you can think of to say to him is, "How long did you take to drive down?"

EDWARD: He's only just got here. As you say, we haven't seen him for some time. You have to start somewhere.

ALICE: Why not ask him if he's got a girlfriend? When's he going to get married? What's happening about grandchildren?

EDWARD: I can't ask him that.

ALICE: All you have to do is give him an opening, and if he's got something to say, he'll say it. He's thirty-two, you know.

EDWARD: Yes. I know.

(He puts a bookmark in his book, puts it down, and rises.)

Cup of tea?

ALICE: He's mentioned a girl called Carrie a couple of times. I wonder what happened to her?

EDWARD: He's never mentioned her to me.

ALICE: I can't help worrying about him. Do you think he's happy? He used to laugh so much when he was little, and now he doesn't laugh, really. I think living alone is bad for people.

EDWARD: I'm not sure that I agree. I think he's happy in that flat of his.

ALICE: Do you? All on his own?

EDWARD: Well, there's that, of course. But he has it the way he wants it. No washing up to speak of. You use a plate, wash it, and there it is, ready to use again. You don't run out of milk, because you're the only one drinking it, so you know just how much there is left in the fridge. You can leave your book open on the table, and never lose your place. Just little things, I know, but they have their value.

ALICE: You sound as if you envy him.

EDWARD: Perhaps a part of me does.

ALICE: Well, it's a part of you you have to fight. It's not good for anyone, hiding in a hole and having everything be always the same. That's why you need me. Think what you would have missed if it wasn't for me. You'd never have gone to India, for a start.

EDWARD: That's true.

ALICE: You know what we should do? We should go back to India for our golden wedding. I know it's not for ages. We could save up.

EDWARD: We'd be far too old. I'd be seventy-five.

ALICE: That's nothing. They have astronauts older than that.

EDWARD: I'll make us some tea, then.

(He goes to make tea. ALICE rises, and takes up Edward's book. She leafs through it without reading it.)

ALICE: Have you done anything about Thursday?

EDWARD: What about Thursday?

ALICE: You've forgotten, haven't you?

EDWARD: Forgotten what?

ALICE: It's our anniversary.

EDWARD: Oh. Right. No, I hadn't forgotten.

ALICE: You haven't said anything.

EDWARD: Well, it isn't Thursday yet. It's only Saturday. Don't lose my place.

ALICE: So you have something in mind?

EDWARD: What do you mean?

ALICE: Will we go out for dinner?

EDWARD: If that's what you want.

ALICE: It isn't.

EDWARD: It isn't?


EDWARD: Alright, then. We won't go out.

(ALICE opens the book at the bookmark, tilts the book so the bookmark slides to the floor, and closes it again.)

ALICE: Oh, look. I've lost your place.

EDWARD: Never mind.

ALICE: No. Mind.

EDWARD: It's not important.

ALICE: What is?

EDWARD: Is something the matter?

ALICE: What do you think?

EDWARD: Well, something seems to be bothering you.

ALICE: You just don't get it, do you?

EDWARD: No. I don't think I do.

ALICE: I say, "Will we go out for dinner on our anniversary?" You say, "If that's what you want." I say, "It isn't." You say, "Then we won't." But I do want to go out for dinner on our anniversary. Why else do you think I suggested it?

EDWARD: Then why say you don't?

ALICE: Because I don't want to do it because I want to do it. I want to do it because you want to do it.

EDWARD: Oh. Right.

ALICE: So do you want to do it?

EDWARD: Yes. Why not?

ALICE: Then I'd like that.

edward: We'll do that, then.

(ALICE closes her eyes and bows her head.)

How was your day?

ALICE: I wish you wouldn't talk to me like that.

EDWARD: Like what?

ALICE: Like that.

EDWARD: I was only asking.

ALICE: What were you only asking?

EDWARD: Your day. How's it gone?

ALICE: How am I supposed to answer?

EDWARD: I think that rather depends.

ALICE: Fine. I'm supposed to say, "Fine." It's not a real question. It's not about me. I want you to ask about me.

(Lights come up on JAMIE.)

JAMIE: I'm having a bit of trouble with the bath. The water came out brown at first. I've been trying to empty it, but the water won't go away.

ALICE: (To EDWARD) You said you'd deal with that drain.

EDWARD: I will. I'll do it in the morning.

ALICE: If you're not going to do something you tell me you're going to do, could you please tell me you're not going to do it, so I know I have to do it myself?

EDWARD: I'll do it first thing.

JAMIE: Actually, it's not a problem, because the brownness is kind of sinking to the bottom.

ALICE: I don't know why I even bother asking you.

Excerpted from The Retreat from Moscow: A Play about a Family by William Nicholson
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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