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Great Castles, a One Act Play

By Jade Shames

Editorial Note: A fictionalized dialog of The Giving Pledge founders.

Click or tap on the picture above to hear the audio of the play.

Warren Buffet, Melinda Gates, and Bill Gates sit in a living room. The room is lavishly decorated, but currently in a state of disarray. Empty wine glasses are peppered throughout the space as are half-eaten plates of hors d’oeurves. The party is over.

Melinda gets a notification on her Windows phone. Bill plays with his Microsoft Surface. They all nurse drinks.

Melina looks up from her phone.

MELINDA: Bettencourt is out. It’s official.

BILL: Oh well.

WARREN: A shame.

MELINDA: I’m a little surprised you guys aren’t more upset about this.

BILL: It’s one woman.

MELINDA: Exactly. One more down. How many billionaires are left in the world? The amount of signatories outside the US has been few and far between.

WARREN: The US is one of the most generous countries in the world.

MELINDA: Does that make any sense to either of you? France just elected one of its most socialist presidents in history. Hollande wants to give the rich a 75% income tax. Bill and Warren snicker.

WARREN: (Looking at Bill.) Oh brother.

MELINDA: So clearly they see the value in redistribution of wealth.

WARREN: Charity and socialism are two very different concepts.

MELINDA: Still, it seems a little backward that the French are so unwilling to give to charity after agreeing to such a high income tax! I mean first Arnaud Lagardère and now Bettencourt -

BILL: There’s a logical explanation.

MELINDA: Which is?

BILL: ...I was hoping you had it.

MELINDA: Seriously, is this a cultural issue? America is a young country - perhaps it’s growing up with a history of castles and kings. Louis XIV said that God wanted him to be king. He didn’t care about the people outside his castle.

WARREN: Après moi, le déluge.

MELINDA: Right. What did he care if people suffered? It wasn’t his place to give away his God-given right. And maybe there’s residual entitlement left over from centuries of King Louies.

BILL: I have a theory, and I really like your castle thing so I’m going to steal it...I think this is less of a cultural issue and more of a human issue. I think that adulthood is partially an illusion, and that everyone, no matter how old -

WARREN: (Laughing a little.) Melinda, why did he look at me when he said that?

BILL: We all like to play games. Some people feel that their wealth is the reward of the life game. You work hard and you build this great big castle of wealth. The child in them is saying “why would you give away your castle?”

WARREN: I’m reminded of Dennis Kozlowski’s $15,000 umbrella stand.

BILL: Yeah, see, it’s all about showing off. If you’re not a member of a world superpower, i.e. France, you might feel the need to show off a bit more.

MELINDA: I refuse to believe that all wealthy people can be so childish. Warren, do you believe this?

WARREN: I have a thought...but I don’t think either of you are going to enjoy it.

BILL: Please, go on...

WARREN: To reuse the idea of a castle...a castle is also a place designed to keep its inhabitants safe from the outside. I remember Jimmy Carter showing me pictures of children in sub-Saharan Africa wearing round black glasses. And I thought, “why are these children, who are clearly in poverty, shirtless, shoeless; how are they wearing glasses?” And the former President said, “they’re not glasses. They’re flies.” You see the children were never taught to wash their faces and so very small flies nest around their eyes. This eventually causes blindness. There are no words that capture that level of human suffering. But I remember hearing about these children and feeling, of all things, fear. Not for them, but for me. It’s not a rational fear. I know very well that I will never experience what these children experience, but to see it and accept it as real...well, it’s frightening. Kings built castles not just because they felt they deserved them or because they wanted to show off their grandeur...they built them to separate themselves from the rest of the earth. Remember Siddartha, the Herman Hesse novel. The Indian prince leaves his kingdom only to find the world is full of suffering and desire - and he welcomes this into himself. Once we accept that pain exists and it is happening all around us, are we not somehow responsible? Do we not welcome it in to our lives? I know it’s awful to say, but I wish...I wish I was never told what the glasses really were. There is silence for a moment.

MELINDA: If holding on to your wealth is like building a wall between you and the world, and, as you say, experiencing life differently - then what is philanthropy?

WARREN: I don’t know. Philanthropy involves a lot of faith. Maybe it, too, is about seeing the world for what you want it to be.

BILL: Or maybe it’s seeing the world for what it is.

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