The Fingerplay of Katharine Nipsy


what children are seen doing, amongst ourselves, of their own accord, and which may be easily supposed as done by grown persons in a primitive society


Deus ex machina in miniature

or, simply


By Joanna Donehower

The SPINSTER (Mother and Grandmama)


The GIRL (Katharine Nipsy)

The FOUNDLING (Big Feller or Thumbkin)

The LANDLORD (A long, manly hand, no lines)

[Enter a Spinster with a rocking chair and a handloom, followed by 3 or a thousand children of varying ages.]

SPINSTER: Now come children, gather round, sit still, very quiet and I’ll tell ye the bonnie yarn o’ Katharine Nipsy.

[On three screens above, the fingerplay of Katharine Nipsy (in shadow), starting as just a small fist, then growing in scale as the story unfolds. Is it a wolf? A crow? A woman? A man? No, it is a hand, playing all the parts in the story of Katharine Nipsy.]

(All flock about the Spinster, and she begins by holding up her right hand before them, the back of it downwards, and the fingers turned up. The first and third finger are brought together as close as possible, to represent the door of the house; while the second remains behind, to represent a robber in the disguise of an Englishman, wanting admittance; all arranged, the second finger is made to tap twice at the supposed door.)

SPINSTER [as she lays the scene.]: Here is the door of the house, and here is its Lady. Here is little Nipsy that works as her maidy. Here is a knock – knock knock knock— at a late hour of night, the hand of a poor man in need of a bite.

And the Lady (in a grave, slow voice) says: Who’s that knocking at my door, Katharine Nipsy?

And Katharine (in a sharp, quick voice) squeaks: Wha’s that knocking at my lady’s door?

[Little finger wagged peremptorily.]

And the Man at the door, in a low beggarly tone, says: An Englishman, lady, a poor lost Englishman, hungry for a meal and a soft pillow to lay my head on.

Katharine squeaks: It’s a poor Englishman, my lady.

The Lady bows her head kindly and invites the poor man inside: Bid him come in; bid him come in.

[The first and third finger are then parted, and the second comes forward between, bowing twice as he enters.]

And the Englishman bows: Your servant, madam; your servant, madam.

SPINSTER: And then, the handsome, hungry beefeater of an Englishman opens his big English jaws and swallows the poor little ladies whole!

[A knock at the door. The SPINSTER turns in horror or glee. Another knock at the door. Shadowplay continues on the screens above. Then, blackout to blackest black. The children scurry, scream, giggle, flee, leaving THE SPINSTER alone.]

[THE SPINSTER is at her chair and knitting beside a large bassinet or cradle or basket, containing THE FOUNDLING. THE SPINSTER is knitting a long, flowing wool thing-a-ma-jig, big enough for the biggest man, but soft enough for a babe. MUMMY enters, carrying a heap of white sheets and miscellaneous baby booties and knitted whosiewhatsits (those things your great Aunt Gertrude used to knit for Christmas, like Tea Cozies, which could also be sailor hats or condoms for large, stuffed Raggedy Andy dolls....whatever) from the outside laundry, which she dumps on the floor. Outside, a fox or a man or an old woman or a baby screaming.]

MUMMY: [Humming or singing a Scottish air:

Dance to your daddie,
My bonnie laddie,
Dance to your daddie, my bonnie lamb!
And ye’ll get a fishie,
In a little dishie—
Ye’ll get a fishie, when the boat comes hame!

Dance to your daddie,
My bonnie laddie,
Dance to your daddie, my bonnie lamb!
And ye’ll get a coatie,
And a pair o’ breekies—
Ye’ll get a whippie and a supple Tam!

MUMMY: Did the Big Feller give you any trouble, Mother? Any tantrums?

[She approaches the bassinet, gives a coochie coo and a tickle to the babe. She giggles.]

MUMMY: [Singing.] Dance to your daddie, etc., etc.

[She begins to fold and stack the laundry, carefully, precisely.]

SPINSTER: A bit of a cough now and then. A burp or two. Haven’t had to change him yet.

MUMMY: Count your blessings, he’s a big feller, isn’t that right. Isn’t that right, Big Feller.

[A child comes down the stairs, carefully, quietly.]

GIRL: Mummy.

MUMMY: What are you doing up, Katharine Nipsy? Go back to bed.

GIRL: I couldn’t sleep.

MUMMY: No? Would you like me to open the window?

GIRL: No. It’s already open.

MUMMY: Would you like me to close the window?


MUMMY: How about a glass of warm milk?

GIRL: No. Beat. I heard a child crying.

MUMMY: There’s no child crying. Mother, did you hear a child?

SPINSTER: No. No child. The Big Feller’s been a little gentleman. [Beat.] There was a fox. Perhaps you were hearing a fox.

MUMMY: That’s it! A fox sounds like a child being murdered! Isn’t that right, Mother?

SPINSTER: That’s right.

GIRL: No it was a child, a boy. Crying, calling out—

MUMMY: You must have had a nightmare. Children are always having nightmares aren’t they, Mother.

SPINSTER: You were always dreaming of crying babies stolen out of cribs and staked on fence posts, fathers drowning little boys in pete bogs and skinning the babes, dragging them back up to the house by the lug to the grandmamas stewing hands and feet in pots, hanging the little skins up on a clothesline to dry—

MUMMY: — the pups yipping at their heels. [Beat.] What an imaginative child I was.

SPINSTER: Yes, I was always saying that. What an imaginative child. A nightmare, dear. Go to sleep, now.

MUMMY: Do you want me to tell the Landlord you were up past bedtime?

GIRL: No. Beat. Is he coming tonight?

SPINSTER: It’s the first of the month. He’s been coming the first of the month for some 30 years now. Should we tell him we’ve a bad girl living in the house?

GIRL: I heard a baby, a boy, screaming—

MUMMY: I told you—

GIRL: — and the sound of an axe, hack hack hacking into skin.

MUMMY: Now, that would be your Grandmama, snoring. No one snores louder than Grandmama, isn’t that right, Mother?

SPINSTER: No one does.

MUMMY: She gasps and grutches like an old woman bout to die, but really, she’s only sleeping.

SPINSTER: A lullaby, Katharine Nipsy, to help you sleep. Your Mummy was always fond of lullabies. Come sit on my knee, and I’ll tell ye the bonnie yarn o’ —

GIRL: No, thank you, I’ll go.

MUMMY: Do you want Grandmama to tuck you into bed?

GIRL: No, I can do it myself.

[The GIRL goes upstairs. Outside, a child or a man or an old woman or a fox is crying, calling out, grutching, or maybe none of those things. Maybe it’s perfectly silent.]

[A knock at the door.]

MUMMY: Is it him?

SPINSTER: Who else on the first of the month? Have you got our share.

MUMMY: I do. [MUMMY pulls a coin purse from under her layers of fabric.]

SPINSTER: Go on. Give it to him.

[MUMMY opens the door. The SPINSTER spins. A hand reaches out, and she places the coin purse squarely in the palm. An unseen hand slams the door. MUMMY returns to the bassinet. Coochiecoochiecoo and all that. The FOUNDLING bites her finger. She shrieks.]

MUMMY: Ouch! [Nursing her finger in her mouth.] He’s getting his baby teeth, mother, or didn’t you notice.

THE FOUNDLING: Begin the battery once again!

[THE GIRL appears on the stairwell, again, and watches.]

SPINSTER: Hush now, Big Feller. Thumbkin nibbled my nips bloody tonight. [One may or may not be able to see the blood seeping through her dress front. SPINSTER knits, faster, more nimbly than before. The garment grows in length at a frightening pace.]

MUMMY: Did you Thumbkin? What a naughty Big Feller.

GIRL: Mummy.

MUMMY: Bed, now!

GIRL: Yes, Mummy, but I heard a door slam, and then I heard you cry out and a man, yelling—

THE FOUNDLING: [Bombastic assault.] What say you? Will you yield? Begin the battery once again!

SPINSTER: Now you’ve done it. Woken the Big Feller.

GIRL: Did the Landlord come?

The Big Feller
The Spinster (Alison Darcy) knits, Mummy (Lindsay Wilson) folds, and Katharine Nipsy (Alexandra Draghici) cuts.

MUMMY: Yes, Katharine Nipsy.

[Meanwhile, SPINSTER leaves her knitting draped across the chair, wound in and out of the arms. She approaches the Big Feller in the bassinet. Takes a whiff. Removes a large bundle (much too large for a mere babe, but not a Big Feller) from the bassinet and tosses it, somewhere.]

GIRL: And did you give him our share?

MUMMY: Yes, Katharine Nipsy.

GIRL: And did he leave straight away?

MUMMY: You ask a lot of questions for a little girl who should be in bed, isn’t that right Mother?

SPINSTER: That’s right.

THE FOUNDLING: Filthy contagious clouds of heady murder, spoil and villainy. What say you? Will you yield? Begin the battery once again!

SPINSTER: Big words from a bright Big Feller!

THE FOUNDLING: The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters. Your fathers taken by the silver beards, and their most reverend heads dashed to the walls, your naked infants spitted upon pikes—

MUMMY: (To GIRL) You weren’t talking in full til you were 6!

THE FOUNDLING: Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry at Herod’s bloodyhunting slaughtermen. What say you?

SPINSTER: What a bright boy, Big Feller. Big, bright boy! Big bloody words!

[The GIRL comes further down the stairs.]

GIRL: Who was the man who took the bundle?

MUMMY: I told you, the Landlord came, first of the month, as always.

SPINSTER: To collect our share, our humble little share.

GIRL: The man took the bundle with the boy inside, and the kitchen knife and the axe, the boy all the time crying and calling out, and then the man with the axe hack hack—

MUMMY: There wasn’t any man. Mother, did you see a man?

SPINSTER: No, just the Landlord and our little Big Feller—

GIRL: Why did he take the little boy?

MUMMY: What little boy?

GIRL: The one that you were nursing every night before this one.


MUMMY: He’s right here, in his crib. Coochie coochie coo. Isn’t he, Mummy.

SPINSTER: Yes, he is. Just like every night before this one.

THE FOUNDLING: Will you yield, and this avoid, or guilty in defence, be thus destroy’d?

The Big Feller
The Big Feller (Mike Hughes), Mummy (Lindsay Wilson), and the Spinster (Alison Darcy) in The Fingerplay of Katharine Nipsy (or Bundles).

GIRL: But he’s not our Big Feller, mummy. Not yours, not mine. Not ours, not at all.

SPINSTER: You know what happens to little girls who spread lies, Katharine Nipsy. The boy who cried wolf, liar liar, pants on—

THE FOUNDLING: Begin the battery once again!

GIRL: Big Feller’s not your Big Feller, Mummy.

MUMMY: What are you talking about?

GIRL: Grandmama let him in when you were out.

SPINSTER: I did not, Katharine Nipsy

GIRL: But she did, Mummy, when you weren’t looking. I saw the man, come from off the moor in through the front door. I saw him take the other little boy, in the bundle, the one you nursed before this one. I saw him peel off his skin like a sheep’s, while he was still crying for you Mummy, then he hung the skin from the clotheslines by the lugs, and then he crawled into the basinett, where he is lying now.

[The babe in the bassinet begins to cry. A manly sigh, a few manly sobs.]

SPINSTER: There, there, little Thumbkin.
Dance to your daddie, My bonnie laddie,
Dance to your daddie, my bonnie lamb!
Dance to your daddie, my bonnie laddie....

Yes, Katharine Nipsy is telling lies about us.

SPINSTER: (To the GIRL) Now how could you have seen all that, from your bedroom window, girl?

THE GIRL: I climbed out onto the tree, outside my bedroom window.

MUMMY: When you should have been in bed?

THE GIRL: Yes, but—

SPINSTER: —No yes, but—

THE FOUNDLING: The gates of mercy shall be all shut up, and the flesh’d soldier, rough and hard of heart, in liberty of bloody hand shall range with conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants. What say you? What say you? Will you yield?

SPINSTER: Up to bed, now. Before the Landlord skins you too!

[The Girl goes up the stairs, quickly.]

SPINSTER: [Returns to her knitting, which is longer and longer and longer than ever before, for the Biggest Feller.] That Katharine Nipsy is a silly girl, just like her mother. Send her to bed without dinner, and she’ll learn.

MUMMY: Just like her mother. [She approaches the crib. Looks down on the Big Feller]. Big Feller has a beard, Mummy.

SPINSTER: Whiskers already? What a big boy! I’ve only got a few yards left!! [She knits, more furiously, faster than before.]

MUMMY: No Mother, a full beard, a moustache, and hair, on his chest, and....

THE FOUNDLING: [Baby sounds, cooing, so gentle, so soft, so infantile.]

MUMMY: —is that a gold tooth?

SPINSTER: Don’t be ridiculous, you are just like Katharine Nipsy.

MUMMY: Mummy, where is Big Feller?

SPINSTER: In the bundle, Katharine Nipsy, in the bundle.

[A child or a fox screams, from upstairs. The SPINSTER’S knitting unravels, row by row, rapidly into a mess of yarn.]

MUMMY: Katharine Nipsy? Katharine Nipsy? Where is Big Feller? Mother, where is Big Feller?

[A child screaming from the basinett, a pile of tangled yarn around the SPINSTER.]

SPINSTER: He’s right in the basket, dear, right in front of you in the basket, crying for his mummy. The girl’s asleep upstairs, all is right with the world. Sh, sh, sh, stay quiet. [MUMMY, reluctant at first, approaches the SPINSTER and her pile of yarn, still unravelling, somehow.] Dance to your daddie, my bonnie lassie, Dance to your daddie, my bonnie lamb

THE FOUNDLING: [Crying even louder, deafening decibels.]

[More shrieking from upstairs.]

SPINSTER: Shh shh shh shh shh. I know what you want to hear. Come rest your head, here on my lap, and I will tell you the bonnie yarn o’ Katharine Nipsy. [Silence all around.]

[A knock on the door. Blackout.]