Ernest Hemingway’s little-known play Today is Friday, originally published in the collection Men Without Women, is a haunting depiction of Christ's crucifixion. The story begins in archetypal Hemingway fashion. The crucifixion itself has already happened off-stage. Three men enter a drinking-place at eleven o'clock at night and begin to talk liquor. “You tried the red?” the first man asks. “No, I ain't tried it,” the second says. They attempt to lose themselves in drink, but the third man has a “gut-ache,” and though the Hebrew wine-seller tries to “fix him up” with some concoction that tastes like “camel chips,” it soon becomes evident that his malady is not merely physiological or psychological.
“He was pretty good in there today,” the first man contends. He could be describing a superior matador or a heavyweight champion. But these are not the mob men of The Killers or the bull-fighting aficionados of The Undefeated. Rather, these three men are Roman soldiers, and we soon recognize them as those who crucified Christ. “Why didn't he come down off the cross?” the second soldier asks, unwittingly betraying his sense of Christ’s singularity—his sense that Christ could have descended. “He didn't want to come down off the cross. That's not his play,” the first suggests. “Show me a guy that doesn't want to come down off the cross,” says the second soldier. Only the third soldier identifies with the crucified, admitting his reluctance to “nail . . . them on,” and repeatedly confessing that he feels “like hell.”
The hero of the play seems to be this third soldier, a man so sick he can drink nothing but water. Although all three men have seen countless crucifixions, the third soldier (for reasons he cannot articulate) feels his way of life—his very being—has been eclipsed by what he saw at Christ’s crucifixion. Hemingway's original title for the play was One More for the Nazarene. One more what? Matthew Nickel notes in Hemingway's Dark Night that the third soldier is this “one more,” one more soul salvaged by the cross. We must also consider Hemingway's final title: Today is Friday. The present tense is crucial, Nickel notes, for it emphasizes “the present moment, today, as each time one revisits the story, like each annual celebration of ‘Good Friday,' one relives the original Friday.”
The story defies explicit resolution. Ordinary, even banal conversations clash with the day's salvific events; the first two soldiers try to reduce Christ to a strong man who was “pretty good in there today,” as if Jesus’s greatness consists in his ability to outlast the other crucified outlaws. The first tells how he defied protocol, spearing the divine criminal in the side in what he considers a mercy killing (“It was the least I could do for him”). Christ impresses them with his evident strength, a power none of them deny, a power proved by his literal powerlessness. But they cannot see beyond their own limited categories. Seeing that Christ’s disciples fled like cowards and that only the women “stuck by him,” one soldier, who has slept with that “nice-looker” Mary Magdalene, can only see the woman as a prostitute. He cannot fathom her conversion, which he describes as a fall from “hav[ing] a lot of stuff” to having “no good luck.”
When the third soldier says he feels “like hell” tonight, we sense the dual meaning of the phrase—both slang and a spiritual state. Christ has made him cognizant of his own hellish brokenness. When the second solder says “you've been out here too long,” the third defies this dismissal: “It ain't just that. I feel like hell.” The repetition reaches out from the play and into the reader’s rattled heart.
For the second soldier, nausea is a necessary, occasional side-effect of a brutal profession; his hollow dismissal, his relentless refusal to take the third soldier seriously, elicits in the reader an even greater concern—for the misfit third soldier, yes, but also for those who, beholding the paradox of Christ's death, subject what happened there to their own standards and measurements rather than subjecting themselves to the measurement of the Crucified One. Time does not march on for the third soldier. For him what has happened will not disappear with a good night’s sleep and a little more “red.” For him, wine not only fails to drown his dissonance; it reminds him of the blood.
As Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate contend, “To make the symbol of the Cross dramatically real Hemingway felt that he had to reduce its vast scale and power to the scope of awareness of a group of drunken Roman soldiers.” The symbol of the cross can sometimes feel so familiar to us that we start to forget its glory and significance. Hemingway’s story gives us the crucifixion through chiaroscuro, refracting Christ’s staggering light through shadowy hearts huddled in a darkened tavern. Sitting across from these men, we see the cross anew.
History, claims the cliché, is penned by the winners, whereas the gospel story is told by the ostensible “losers.” But in Today is Friday, all of the supposed “winners” laud the “Loser’s” manliness, and one even seems to glimpse something of the crucifixion’s significance. Hemingway lets the curtain close before we can see what happens to the third soldier. But he has given us enough of a glimpse to make plain the holy pains of the harrowed heart. We might read the third soldier as the centurion in Mark’s Gospel: “And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!'” (Mark 15:37–39).
Joshua Hren is Assistant Director of the Honors College at Belmont Abbey College and author of This Our Exile: Short Stories.