(The roar of Niagara Falls. Lights up on Annie. She clasps an invisible heart-shaped silk pillow, addresses a crowd.)
Ladies and Gentlemen! (beat) Beg pardon? I’m afraid this is as loud as I get. Gather in, it’s hard to make oneself heard above the roar of the mighty falls.
(She steps forward, the roar fades. She becomes aware of the pillow, puts it on an invisible barrel beside her.)
Ladies and Gentlemen! Is that better? Good. I am Mrs. Annie Edson Taylor. Though the missus part is rather out-of-date since I’ve been a widow almost all my life. Marriage was to be an adventure and we were both disappointed. My husband had the courtesy to leave this world six months after our wedding day. I was 18 and have been on my own ever since. More or less.
Adventure is all I’ve ever wanted. What’s that? You, too? What’s your name, little girl? Amelia? Well, it’s very brave of you to speak up like that.
(She points to the invisible barrel.)
Kentucky white oak. I picked all the boards myself, in fact it’s my own design. My very first barrel. Three feet acrosst. Four and one half feet tall. Like me. 10 metal hoops holding it all together – we hope (she laughs for show). Packed with feather pillows to cushion me for the impact. Weighted down with an anvil so it stays upright once we hit the water below. Yes, Amelia, you may touch it.
Am I afraid? Of course not. (beat, for effect). I’m terrified! But I’ve survived a house fire, an earthquake, and a stage coach hold-up. Yes! The masked marauder stuck a gun to the side of my head, the left side – which is my good side, for you fellows from the newspapers – and I refused to give them my money. Eight hundred dollars it was, all my money in the world. “Blow away,” I told them. “I would as soon be without my brains as without money.”
Yes, that is why I am here, ladies and gentlemen. I have fallen on hard times. Desperate times require desperate measures. But I am a woman who floats. And one who likes to hold onto her brains.
You like my hat? Thank you, Amelia. I spent my last dollar on it, a gift for myself. Today is my birthday. 42 years old. It seemed an auspicious day to be audacious. That, plus with the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo I knew there would be lots of open-minded, future-oriented folks who would want to see a woman make history. The first person – man or woman - to go over the falls and survive. How many people have tried and failed? I couldn’t tell you. I don’t want to know! That was them, this is me – and a brand-new century. A woman’s century, with suffrage right around the corner. What better way to show how brave and strong and free we are. Right, Amelia? What better way to celebrate my 41st birthday. No, I didn’t say 42 before. And it’s quite impertinent to remark on someone’s age or looks, young lady, I’m prematurely grey. That’s what a life like mine will get you.
But when I heard that voice that day saying, “Go over Niagara Falls in a barrel” – I knew this is what I’d waited my whole life for. The adventure of my life. No, I mean – there will be many more to come, Amelia, of course.
Now, they’re going to pump enough air in this barrel to last one hour. I’ll go over the falls, then they’ll come fish me out. Imagine how it’s going to feel to be airborne, then plunge 160 feet to the water below. (she does, gets scared). Imagine. Yes, I do hope an hour’s worth of air is enough. And that the hoops are enough. And the boards…
Amelia, that is a pillow there on top of the barrel. Silk, in the shape of a heart. My friend Lucy gave it to me. She’s in dire straits as well, this lark is for her, too – that’s what I called it, a lark, so she wouldn’t worry. We run a charm school – we teach good manners, the waltz and such – in Michigan. Bay City. But as we all know, there is not as much demand for fine breeding these days, and so here I am - Amelia, give me that pillow!
(She grabs it, clasps it.)
Lucy is still in Bay City, Amelia. Said she couldn’t bear to...funny, for such a good heart, it isn’t very strong. One of life’s ironies. An irony? When God laughs at us and how we expect things to be. I’ve had a very ironic life. She made me promise – she meaning Lucy, not God, God is certainly not a she or we women would lead much different lives – Lucy made me promise that if I got scared I would – that I should not be embarrassed to…but when you’ve gone to all this trouble and expense, when you’re on the edge of the falls…
I’ll sign my leaflets now, ten cents a signature. Those will be worth something. Real collector’s item. First woman to go over the falls. And survive. Or not (attempts to laugh).
Ah, here they are. The men with the air pump. And there’s the boat that will tow me out to the middle of the water. It’s a beautiful fall day to go over the falls. I am Annie Edson Taylor. I am 62 years old today. And I float.