Friday, August 27, 2010

Susan Glaspell | TRIFLES

Susan Glaspell

Scene from the original production of Trifles

by Susan Glaspell

Trifles was first staged by the Provincetown Plays at the Wharf Theater in Provincetown, Massachusetts in the summer of 1916.


George Henderson, County Attorney
Henry Peters, Sheriff
Lewis Hale, a neighboring farmer
Mrs. Peters
Mrs. Hale

[The kitchen in the now abandoned farmhouse of JOHN WRIGHT, a gloomy kitchen, and left without having been put in order—unwashed pans under the sink, a loaf of bread outside the bread-box, a dish-towel on the table—other signs of uncompleted work. At the rear the outer door opens and the SHERIFF comes in followed by the COUNTY ATTORNEY and HALE. The SHERIFF and HALE are men in middle life, the COUNTY ATTORNEY is a young man; all are much bundled up and go at once to the stove. They are followed by the two women—the SHERIFF's wife first; she is a slight wiry woman, a thin nervous face. MRS HALE is larger and would ordinarily be called more comfortable looking, but she is disturbed now and looks fearfully about as she enters. The women have come in slowly, and stand close together near the door.]
COUNTY ATTORNEY: (rubbing his hands) This feels good. Come up to the fire, ladies.
MRS PETERS: (after taking a step forward) I'm not—cold.
SHERIFF: (unbuttoning his overcoat and stepping away from the stove as if to mark the beginning of official business) Now, Mr Hale, before we move things about, you explain to Mr Henderson just what you saw when you came here yesterday morning.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: By the way, has anything been moved? Are things just as you left them yesterday?
SHERIFF: (looking about) It's just the same. When it dropped below zero last night I thought I'd better send Frank out this morning to make a fire for us—no use getting pneumonia with a big case on, but I told him not to touch anything except the stove—and you know Frank.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: Somebody should have been left here yesterday.
SHERIFF: Oh—yesterday. When I had to send Frank to Morris Center for that man who went crazy—I want you to know I had my hands full yesterday. I knew you could get back from Omaha by today and as long as I went over everything here myself—
COUNTY ATTORNEY: Well, Mr Hale, tell just what happened when you came here yesterday morning.
HALE: Harry and I had started to town with a load of potatoes. We came along the road from my place and as I got here I said, I'm going to see if I can't get John Wright to go in with me on a party telephone.' I spoke to Wright about it once before and he put me off, saying folks talked too much anyway, and all he asked was peace and quiet—I guess you know about how much he talked himself; but I thought maybe if I went to the house and talked about it before his wife, though I said to Harry that I didn't know as what his wife wanted made much difference to John—
COUNTY ATTORNEY: Let's talk about that later, Mr Hale. I do want to talk about that, but tell now just what happened when you got to the house.
HALE: I didn't hear or see anything; I knocked at the door, and still it was all quiet inside. I knew they must be up, it was past eight o'clock. So I knocked again, and I thought I heard somebody say, 'Come in.' I wasn't sure, I'm not sure yet, but I opened the door—this door (indicating the door by which the two women are still standing) and there in that rocker—(pointing to it) sat Mrs Wright.
[They all look at the rocker.]
COUNTY ATTORNEY: What—was she doing?
HALE: She was rockin' back and forth. She had her apron in her hand and was kind of—pleating it.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: And how did she—look?
HALE: Well, she looked queer.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: How do you mean—queer?
HALE: Well, as if she didn't know what she was going to do next. And kind of done up.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: How did she seem to feel about your coming?
HALE: Why, I don't think she minded—one way or other. She didn't pay much attention. I said, 'How do, Mrs Wright it's cold, ain't it?' And she said, 'Is it?'—and went on kind of pleating at her apron. Well, I was surprised; she didn't ask me to come up to the stove, or to set down, but just sat there, not even looking at me, so I said, 'I want to see John.' And then she—laughed. I guess you would call it a laugh. I thought of Harry and the team outside, so I said a little sharp: 'Can't I see John?' 'No', she says, kind o' dull like. 'Ain't he home?' says I. 'Yes', says she, 'he's home'. 'Then why can't I see him?' I asked her, out of patience. ''Cause he's dead', says she. 'Dead?' says I. She just nodded her head, not getting a bit excited, but rockin' back and forth. 'Why—where is he?' says I, not knowing what to say. She just pointed upstairs—like that (himself pointing to the room above) I got up, with the idea of going up there. I walked from there to here—then I says, 'Why, what did he die of?' 'He died of a rope round his neck', says she, and just went on pleatin' at her apron. Well, I went out and called Harry. I thought I might—need help. We went upstairs and there he was lyin'—
COUNTY ATTORNEY: I think I'd rather have you go into that upstairs, where you can point it all out. Just go on now with the rest of the story.
HALE: Well, my first thought was to get that rope off. It looked ... (stops, his face twitches) ... but Harry, he went up to him, and he said, 'No, he's dead all right, and we'd better not touch anything.' So we went back down stairs. She was still sitting that same way. 'Has anybody been notified?' I asked. 'No', says she unconcerned. 'Who did this, Mrs Wright?' said Harry. He said it business-like—and she stopped pleatin' of her apron. 'I don't know', she says. 'You don't know?' says Harry. 'No', says she. 'Weren't you sleepin' in the bed with him?' says Harry. 'Yes', says she, 'but I was on the inside'. 'Somebody slipped a rope round his neck and strangled him and you didn't wake up?' says Harry. 'I didn't wake up', she said after him. We must 'a looked as if we didn't see how that could be, for after a minute she said, 'I sleep sound'. Harry was going to ask her more questions but I said maybe we ought to let her tell her story first to the coroner, or the sheriff, so Harry went fast as he could to Rivers' place, where there's a telephone.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: And what did Mrs Wright do when she knew that you had gone for the coroner?
HALE: She moved from that chair to this one over here (pointing to a small chair in the corner) and just sat there with her hands held together and looking down. I got a feeling that I ought to make some conversation, so I said I had come in to see if John wanted to put in a telephone, and at that she started to laugh, and then she stopped and looked at me—scared, (the COUNTY ATTORNEY, who has had his notebook out, makes a note) I dunno, maybe it wasn't scared. I wouldn't like to say it was. Soon Harry got back, and then Dr Lloyd came, and you, Mr Peters, and so I guess that's all I know that you don't.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: (looking around) I guess we'll go upstairs first—and then out to the barn and around there, (to the SHERIFF) You're convinced that there was nothing important here—nothing that would point to any motive.
SHERIFF: Nothing here but kitchen things.
[The COUNTY ATTORNEY, after again looking around the kitchen, opens the door of a cupboard closet. He gets up on a chair and looks on a shelf. Pulls his hand away, sticky.]
COUNTY ATTORNEY: Here's a nice mess.
[The women draw nearer.]
MRS PETERS: (to the other woman) Oh, her fruit; it did freeze, (to the LAWYER) She worried about that when it turned so cold. She said the fire'd go out and her jars would break.
SHERIFF: Well, can you beat the women! Held for murder and worryin' about her preserves.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: I guess before we're through she may have something more serious than preserves to worry about.
HALE: Well, women are used to worrying over trifles.
[The two women move a little closer together.]
COUNTY ATTORNEY: (with the gallantry of a young politician) And yet, for all their worries, what would we do without the ladies? (the women do not unbend. He goes to the sink, takes a dipperful of water from the pail and pouring it into a basin, washes his hands. Starts to wipe them on the roller-towel, turns it for a cleaner place) Dirty towels! (kicks his foot against the pans under the sink) Not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies?
MRS HALE: (stiffly) There's a great deal of work to be done on a farm.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: To be sure. And yet (with a little bow to her) I know there are some Dickson county farmhouses which do not have such roller towels. (He gives it a pull to expose its length again.)
MRS HALE: Those towels get dirty awful quick. Men's hands aren't always as clean as they might be.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: Ah, loyal to your sex, I see. But you and Mrs Wright were neighbors. I suppose you were friends, too.
MRS HALE: (shaking her head) I've not seen much of her of late years. I've not been in this house—it's more than a year.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: And why was that? You didn't like her?
MRS HALE: I liked her all well enough. Farmers' wives have their hands full, Mr Henderson. And then—
MRS HALE: (looking about) It never seemed a very cheerful place.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: No—it's not cheerful. I shouldn't say she had the homemaking instinct.
MRS HALE: Well, I don't know as Wright had, either.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: You mean that they didn't get on very well?
MRS HALE: No, I don't mean anything. But I don't think a place'd be any cheerfuller for John Wright's being in it.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: I'd like to talk more of that a little later. I want to get the lay of things upstairs now. (He goes to the left, where three steps lead to a stair door.)
SHERIFF: I suppose anything Mrs Peters does'll be all right. She was to take in some clothes for her, you know, and a few little things. We left in such a hurry yesterday.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: Yes, but I would like to see what you take, Mrs Peters, and keep an eye out for anything that might be of use to us.
MRS PETERS: Yes, Mr Henderson.
[The women listen to the men's steps on the stairs, then look about the kitchen.]
MRS HALE: I'd hate to have men coming into my kitchen, snooping around and criticising.
[She arranges the pans under sink which the LAWYER had shoved out of place.]
MRS PETERS: Of course it's no more than their duty.
MRS HALE: Duty's all right, but I guess that deputy sheriff that came out to make the fire might have got a little of this on. (gives the roller towel a pull) Wish I'd thought of that sooner. Seems mean to talk about her for not having things slicked up when she had to come away in such a hurry.
MRS PETERS: (who has gone to a small table in the left rear corner of the room, and lifted one end of a towel that covers a pan) She had bread set. (Stands still.)
MRS HALE: (eyes fixed on a loaf of bread beside the bread-box, which is on a low shelf at the other side of the room. Moves slowly toward it) She was going to put this in there, (picks up loaf, then abruptly drops it. In a manner of returning to familiar things) It's a shame about her fruit. I wonder if it's all gone. (gets up on the chair and looks) I think there's some here that's all right, Mrs Peters. Yes—here; (holding it toward the window) this is cherries, too. (looking again) I declare I believe that's the only one. (gets down, bottle in her hand. Goes to the sink and wipes it off on the outside) She'll feel awful bad after all her hard work in the hot weather. I remember the afternoon I put up my cherries last summer.
[She puts the bottle on the big kitchen table, center of the room. With a sigh, is about to sit down in the rocking-chair. Before she is seated realizes what chair it is; with a slow look at it, steps back. The chair which she has touched rocks back and forth.]
MRS PETERS: Well, I must get those things from the front room closet, (she goes to the door at the right, but after looking into the other room, steps back) You coming with me, Mrs Hale? You could help me carry them.
[They go in the other room; reappear, MRS PETERS carrying a dress and skirt, MRS HALE following with a pair of shoes.]
MRS PETERS: My, it's cold in there.
[She puts the clothes on the big table, and hurries to the stove.]
MRS HALE: (examining the skirt) Wright was close. I think maybe that's why she kept so much to herself. She didn't even belong to the Ladies Aid. I suppose she felt she couldn't do her part, and then you don't enjoy things when you feel shabby. She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively, when she was Minnie Foster, one of the town girls singing in the choir. But that—oh, that was thirty years ago. This all you was to take in?
MRS PETERS: She said she wanted an apron. Funny thing to want, for there isn't much to get you dirty in jail, goodness knows. But I suppose just to make her feel more natural. She said they was in the top drawer in this cupboard. Yes, here. And then her little shawl that always hung behind the door. (opens stair door and looks) Yes, here it is.
[Quickly shuts door leading upstairs.]
MRS HALE: (abruptly moving toward her) Mrs Peters?
MRS PETERS: Yes, Mrs Hale?
MRS HALE: Do you think she did it?
MRS PETERS: (in a frightened voice) Oh, I don't know.
MRS HALE: Well, I don't think she did. Asking for an apron and her little shawl. Worrying about her fruit.
MRS PETERS: (starts to speak, glances up, where footsteps are heard in the room above. In a low voice) Mr Peters says it looks bad for her. Mr Henderson is awful sarcastic in a speech and he'll make fun of her sayin' she didn't wake up.
MRS HALE: Well, I guess John Wright didn't wake when they was slipping that rope under his neck.
MRS PETERS: No, it's strange. It must have been done awful crafty and still. They say it was such a—funny way to kill a man, rigging it all up like that.
MRS HALE: That's just what Mr Hale said. There was a gun in the house. He says that's what he can't understand.
MRS PETERS: Mr Henderson said coming out that what was needed for the case was a motive; something to show anger, or—sudden feeling.
MRS HALE: (who is standing by the table) Well, I don't see any signs of anger around here, (she puts her hand on the dish towel which lies on the table, stands looking down at table, one half of which is clean, the other half messy) It's wiped to here, (makes a move as if to finish work, then turns and looks at loaf of bread outside the breadbox. Drops towel. In that voice of coming back to familiar things.) Wonder how they are finding things upstairs. I hope she had it a little more red-up up there. You know, it seems kind of sneaking. Locking her up in town and then coming out here and trying to get her own house to turn against her!
MRS PETERS: But Mrs Hale, the law is the law.
MRS HALE: I s'pose 'tis, (unbuttoning her coat) Better loosen up your things, Mrs Peters. You won't feel them when you go out.
[MRS PETERS takes off her fur tippet, goes to hang it on hook at back of room, stands looking at the under part of the small corner table.]
MRS PETERS: She was piecing a quilt.
[She brings the large sewing basket and they look at the bright pieces.]
MRS HALE: It's log cabin pattern. Pretty, isn't it? I wonder if she was goin' to quilt it or just knot it?
[Footsteps have been heard coming down the stairs. The SHERIFF enters followed by HALE and the COUNTY ATTORNEY.]
SHERIFF: They wonder if she was going to quilt it or just knot it!
[The men laugh, the women look abashed.]
COUNTY ATTORNEY: (rubbing his hands over the stove) Frank's fire didn't do much up there, did it? Well, let's go out to the barn and get that cleared up. (The men go outside.)
MRS HALE: (resentfully) I don't know as there's anything so strange, our takin' up our time with little things while we're waiting for them to get the evidence. (she sits down at the big table smoothing out a block with decision) I don't see as it's anything to laugh about.
MRS PETERS: (apologetically) Of course they've got awful important things on their minds.
[Pulls up a chair and joins MRS HALE at the table.]
MRS HALE: (examining another block) Mrs Peters, look at this one. Here, this is the one she was working on, and look at the sewing! All the rest of it has been so nice and even. And look at this! It's all over the place! Why, it looks as if she didn't know what she was about!
[After she has said this they look at each other, then start to glance back at the door. After an instant MRS HALE has pulled at a knot and ripped the sewing.]
MRS PETERS: Oh, what are you doing, Mrs Hale?
MRS HALE: (mildly) Just pulling out a stitch or two that's not sewed very good. (threading a needle) Bad sewing always made me fidgety.
MRS PETERS: (nervously) I don't think we ought to touch things.
MRS HALE: I'll just finish up this end. (suddenly stopping and leaning forward) Mrs Peters?
MRS PETERS: Yes, Mrs Hale?
MRS HALE: What do you suppose she was so nervous about?
MRS PETERS: Oh—I don't know. I don't know as she was nervous. I sometimes sew awful queer when I'm just tired. (MRS HALE starts to say something, looks at MRS PETERS, then goes on sewing) Well I must get these things wrapped up. They may be through sooner than we think, (putting apron and other things together) I wonder where I can find a piece of paper, and string.
MRS HALE: In that cupboard, maybe.
MRS PETERS: (looking in cupboard) Why, here's a bird-cage, (holds it up) Did she have a bird, Mrs Hale?
MRS HALE: Why, I don't know whether she did or not—I've not been here for so long. There was a man around last year selling canaries cheap, but I don't know as she took one; maybe she did. She used to sing real pretty herself.
MRS PETERS: (glancing around) Seems funny to think of a bird here. But she must have had one, or why would she have a cage? I wonder what happened to it.
MRS HALE: I s'pose maybe the cat got it.
MRS PETERS: No, she didn't have a cat. She's got that feeling some people have about cats—being afraid of them. My cat got in her room and she was real upset and asked me to take it out.
MRS HALE: My sister Bessie was like that. Queer, ain't it?
MRS PETERS: (examining the cage) Why, look at this door. It's broke. One hinge is pulled apart.
MRS HALE: (looking too) Looks as if someone must have been rough with it.
MRS PETERS: Why, yes.
[She brings the cage forward and puts it on the table.]
MRS HALE: I wish if they're going to find any evidence they'd be about it. I don't like this place.
MRS PETERS: But I'm awful glad you came with me, Mrs Hale. It would be lonesome for me sitting here alone.
MRS HALE: It would, wouldn't it? (dropping her sewing) But I tell you what I do wish, Mrs Peters. I wish I had come over sometimes when she was here. I—(looking around the room)—wish I had.
MRS PETERS: But of course you were awful busy, Mrs Hale—your house and your children.
MRS HALE: I could've come. I stayed away because it weren't cheerful—and that's why I ought to have come. I—I've never liked this place. Maybe because it's down in a hollow and you don't see the road. I dunno what it is, but it's a lonesome place and always was. I wish I had come over to see Minnie Foster sometimes. I can see now—(shakes her head)
MRS PETERS: Well, you mustn't reproach yourself, Mrs Hale. Somehow we just don't see how it is with other folks until—something comes up.
MRS HALE: Not having children makes less work—but it makes a quiet house, and Wright out to work all day, and no company when he did come in. Did you know John Wright, Mrs Peters?
MRS PETERS: Not to know him; I've seen him in town. They say he was a good man.
MRS HALE: Yes—good; he didn't drink, and kept his word as well as most, I guess, and paid his debts. But he was a hard man, Mrs Peters. Just to pass the time of day with him—(shivers) Like a raw wind that gets to the bone, (pauses, her eye falling on the cage) I should think she would 'a wanted a bird. But what do you suppose went with it?
MRS PETERS: I don't know, unless it got sick and died.
[She reaches over and swings the broken door, swings it again, both women watch it.]
MRS HALE: You weren't raised round here, were you? (MRS PETERS shakes her head) You didn't know—her?
MRS PETERS: Not till they brought her yesterday.
MRS HALE: She—come to think of it, she was kind of like a bird herself—real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and—fluttery. How—she—did—change. (silence; then as if struck by a happy thought and relieved to get back to everyday things) Tell you what, Mrs Peters, why don't you take the quilt in with you? It might take up her mind.
MRS PETERS: Why, I think that's a real nice idea, Mrs Hale. There couldn't possibly be any objection to it, could there? Now, just what would I take? I wonder if her patches are in here—and her things.
[They look in the sewing basket.]
MRS HALE: Here's some red. I expect this has got sewing things in it. (brings out a fancy box) What a pretty box. Looks like something somebody would give you. Maybe her scissors are in here. (Opens box. Suddenly puts her hand to her nose) Why—(MRS PETERS bends nearer, then turns her face away) There's something wrapped up in this piece of silk.
MRS PETERS: Why, this isn't her scissors.
MRS HALE: (lifting the silk) Oh, Mrs Peters—it's—
[MRS PETERS bends closer.]
MRS PETERS: It's the bird.
MRS HALE: (jumping up) But, Mrs Peters—look at it! It's neck! Look at its neck! It's all—other side to.
MRS PETERS: Somebody—wrung—its—neck.
[Their eyes meet. A look of growing comprehension, of horror. Steps are heard outside. MRS HALE slips box under quilt pieces, and sinks into her chair. Enter SHERIFF and COUNTY ATTORNEY. MRS PETERS rises.]
COUNTY ATTORNEY: (as one turning from serious things to little pleasantries) Well ladies, have you decided whether she was going to quilt it or knot it?
MRS PETERS: We think she was going to—knot it.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: Well, that's interesting, I'm sure. (seeing the birdcage) Has the bird flown?
MRS HALE: (putting more quilt pieces over the box) We think the—cat got it.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: (preoccupied) Is there a cat?
[MRS HALE glances in a quick covert way at MRS PETERS.]
MRS PETERS: Well, not now. They're superstitious, you know. They leave.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: (to SHERIFF PETERS, continuing an interrupted conversation) No sign at all of anyone having come from the outside. Their own rope. Now let's go up again and go over it piece by piece. (they start upstairs) It would have to have been someone who knew just the—
[MRS PETERS sits down. The two women sit there not looking at one another, but as if peering into something and at the same time holding back. When they talk now it is in the manner of feeling their way over strange ground, as if afraid of what they are saying, but as if they can not help saying it.]
MRS HALE: She liked the bird. She was going to bury it in that pretty box.
MRS PETERS: (in a whisper) When I was a girl—my kitten—there was a boy took a hatchet, and before my eyes—and before I could get there—(covers her face an instant) If they hadn't held me back I would have—(catches herself, looks upstairs where steps are heard, falters weakly)—hurt him.
MRS HALE: (with a slow look around her) I wonder how it would seem never to have had any children around, (pause) No, Wright wouldn't like the bird—a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that, too.
MRS PETERS: (moving uneasily) We don't know who killed the bird.
MRS HALE: I knew John Wright.
MRS PETERS: It was an awful thing was done in this house that night, Mrs Hale. Killing a man while he slept, slipping a rope around his neck that choked the life out of him.
MRS HALE: His neck. Choked the life out of him.
[Her hand goes out and rests on the bird-cage.]
MRS PETERS: (with rising voice) We don't know who killed him. We don't know.
MRS HALE: (her own feeling not interrupted) If there'd been years and years of nothing, then a bird to sing to you, it would be awful—still, after the bird was still.
MRS PETERS: (something within her speaking) I know what stillness is. When we homesteaded in Dakota, and my first baby died—after he was two years old, and me with no other then—
MRS HALE: (moving) How soon do you suppose they'll be through, looking for the evidence?
MRS PETERS: I know what stillness is. (pulling herself back) The law has got to punish crime, Mrs Hale.
MRS HALE: (not as if answering that) I wish you'd seen Minnie Foster when she wore a white dress with blue ribbons and stood up there in the choir and sang. (a look around the room) Oh, I wish I'd come over here once in a while! That was a crime! That was a crime! Who's going to punish that?
MRS PETERS: (looking upstairs) We mustn't—take on.
MRS HALE: I might have known she needed help! I know how things can be—for women. I tell you, it's queer, Mrs Peters. We live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things—it's all just a different kind of the same thing, (brushes her eyes, noticing the bottle of fruit, reaches out for it) If I was you, I wouldn't tell her her fruit was gone. Tell her it ain't. Tell her it's all right. Take this in to prove it to her. She—she may never know whether it was broke or not.
MRS PETERS: (takes the bottle, looks about for something to wrap it in; takes petticoat from the clothes brought from the other room, very nervously begins winding this around the bottle. In a false voice) My, it's a good thing the men couldn't hear us. Wouldn't they just laugh! Getting all stirred up over a little thing like a—dead canary. As if that could have anything to do with—with—wouldn't they laugh!
[The men are heard coming down stairs.]
MRS HALE: (under her breath) Maybe they would—maybe they wouldn't.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: No, Peters, it's all perfectly clear except a reason for doing it. But you know juries when it comes to women. If there was some definite thing. Something to show—something to make a story about—a thing that would connect up with this strange way of doing it—
[The women's eyes meet for an instant. Enter HALE from outer door.]
HALE: Well, I've got the team around. Pretty cold out there.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: I'm going to stay here a while by myself, (to the SHERIFF) You can send Frank out for me, can't you? I want to go over everything. I'm not satisfied that we can't do better.
SHERIFF: Do you want to see what Mrs Peters is going to take in?
[The LAWYER goes to the table, picks up the apron, laughs.]
COUNTY ATTORNEY: Oh, I guess they're not very dangerous things the ladies have picked out. (Moves a few things about, disturbing the quilt pieces which cover the box. Steps back) No, Mrs Peters doesn't need supervising. For that matter, a sheriff's wife is married to the law. Ever think of it that way, Mrs Peters?
MRS PETERS: Not—just that way.
SHERIFF: (chuckling) Married to the law. (moves toward the other room) I just want you to come in here a minute, George. We ought to take a look at these windows.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: (scoffingly) Oh, windows!
SHERIFF: We'll be right out, Mr Hale.
[HALE goes outside. The SHERIFF follows the COUNTY ATTORNEY into the other room. Then MRS HALE rises, hands tight together, looking intensely at MRS PETERS, whose eyes make a slow turn, finally meeting MRS HALE's. A moment MRS HALE holds her, then her own eyes point the way to where the box is concealed. Suddenly MRS PETERS throws back quilt pieces and tries to put the box in the bag she is wearing. It is too big. She opens box, starts to take bird out, cannot touch it, goes to pieces, stands there helpless. Sound of a knob turning in the other room. MRS HALE snatches the box and puts it in the pocket of her big coat. Enter COUNTY ATTORNEY and SHERIFF.]
COUNTY ATTORNEY: (facetiously) Well, Henry, at least we found out that she was not going to quilt it. She was going to—what is it you call it, ladies?
MRS HALE: (her hand against her pocket) We call it—knot it, Mr Henderson.


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Douglas Messerli "Stage and Street" (on the writings of Stefan Brecht)

Bertolt Brecht and his son Stefan

Stefan Brecht and Rena Gill

by Douglas Messerli

Stefan Brecht The Theatre of Visions: Robert Wilson (New York: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1978)

Stefan Brecht Queer Theatre (New York: Methuen, 1986)
Stefan Brecht Poems (San Francisco: City Lights, 1978)
Stefan Brecht 8th Avenue Poems (new York: Spuyten Duyvil, 2006)

Theater historian and poet Stefan Brecht died, at the age of 84, on April 13th of this year (2009). The son of German playwright Bertolt Brecht and actress Helene Wiegel, Stefan was born in Berlin, and came to the United States at the age of 17, when his family escaped Nazi Germany by moving to Santa Monica, California, where they joined the growing German émigré community. When his family returned to Germany after Bertolt Brecht was forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Stefan remained in California, attending UCLA and, later, Harvard, where he received his PhD in Philosophy.

In 1966 he moved to New York City with his wife, Mary McDonough Brecht and his two children, quickly becoming involved in the burgeoning experimental theater groups in Lower Manhattan. Brecht performed with the theatrical performance artist Robert Wilson and Charles Ludlam in his Ridiculous Theatrical Company.

In 1972 Brecht published a book detailing several of Wilson's performances titled The Theatre of Visions: Robert Wilson, printed in English by the German publishing house of Suhrkamp Verlag, thus beginning what was to have been a nine-volume series of presentations of what he described as "original" theater: The Original Theatre of the City of New York: From the mid-60s to the mid-70s. The mind boggles just thinking about Brecht's grand project, outlined as follows:

Book 1. The theatre of visions: Robert Wilson
Book 2. Queer theatre.
Book 3. Richard Foreman's diary theatre. Theatre as personal phenomenology of mind.
Book 4. Morality plays. Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet theatre.
Book 5. Theatre as psycho-therapy for performers.
A. Joe Chaikin's Open Theatre. The Becks' Living Theatre.
B. Richard Schechner's Performance Group. Andre Gregory's Manhattan Repertory Company. With notes on Grotowski and Andre Serban.
Book 6. The 1970s hermetic theatre of the performing director. Jared Bark. Stuart Sherman, John Zorn, Melvin Andringa. With appendices on Ann Wilson,
Robert Whitman and Wilford Leach.
Book 7. Theatre as collective improvisation. The Mabou Mines.
Book 8. Black theatre and music. With notes on the Duo Theatre and M. van Peebles.
Book 9. Dance. Merce Cunningham, Yvonne Rainer, Meredith Monk, Douglas Dunn. With a note on Ping Chong.

One can only imagine, had he accomplished this project, how much richer would be the history of our cultural heritage. As it happened, Brecht was able only to complete three of these volumes, The Theatre of Visions: Robert Wilson, Queer Theater, and Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet Theatre. At the time of his death his was working on the Richard Foreman study.
To call these books "studies," however, would be inappropriate. Each of the volumes differ from the others, but all combine painstaking detail with an often irritating style that frequently overwhelms the works he is attempting to describe.

The Robert Wilson book, for example, consists of minute-by-minute descriptions of the performances, along with charts and maps, and Wilson's own notes that takes us through each production. These detailed descriptions, moreover, share each page with long footnotes describing events in even greater detail and explaining variations in the text.

Brecht's description of Wilson's renowned Einstein on the Beach, for example begins:

K 151
On the horizontal grey rectangle of the drop, (ft 52: American premiere of Robert Wilson's and Phil Glass' Einstein on the Beach: November 21, 1976, at the New York Metropolitan Opera. I am here describing the second performance, in the same place, the following Sunday, Nov. 28th, but include data re the first), doubly framed in black, enormous, at the lower right a smaller, fatter, almost square rectangle, pasted to it, projector light that seems to spill over, a white rug, on the floor beneath the two women seated in front of its, a Caucasian 9the dancer Lucinda Childs) and a Negro (Sheryl Sutton, a Wilsonian performer),the latter immobile, hands in lap, the former, within the maintained pose, shifting: contrast of self-contained quietude in concentration to tension imperfectly imposed on nervous agitation. (ft 53: Wilson has maintained them in this contrast, analogous, relative to light, to that of back to white, through the play except for the concluding >knee< (tho' act IV is such as to preclude its being in evidence). Self-contained black is to Wilson not negative. It is his own color.) A sustained organ note, the space-filling sound of a present awareness, accompanies it (in the pit, by pale-green lights, the console awareness of an electric organ is visible).

All that in the very first moment of the work! After 59 pages of that kind of writing, on some of which there is only one line of text, the rest given over to footnotes, one feels utterly exhausted, although perhaps one can conjure up the "vision" at the heart of Wilson's piece. Yet Brecht's conclusion to all his attentive description is a simple thumbs down dismissal of the work: Wilson failed to find images for what was on his mind. The themes he hit on do not relate to the content. He changed his style to divorce the spectacle from its content. Watching it, we see the meaningless alteration of meaningless themes, and perhaps the theme of failure.

Arguably, it may be beneficial to have such a thorough-going historian treat his work with a kind of love-hate relationship. For all of his obvious devotion to the experimental theater on which he writes, Brecht never makes easy assumptions. For example, in Queer Theater, he maintains that as the gay theater got better, as it more artfully organized its childish yet energized low comedy and burlesque into formal artifice, the works became more popular but less interesting, that, in some senses, although they were better structured, the plays "fell apart." After a description of the work of Jack Smith, notes on the earliest productions of the Theatre of the Ridiculous, an analysis of "the gesture of hatred" works of John Vaccaro, and the "gesture of compassion" works of Charles Ludlam, and a brief summary of Ronald Tavel's career, Brecht ends this fascinating work with three pieces on The Hot Peaches, a discussion of Larry Ree's Original Trockadero Gloxinia Ballet Company and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, and a piece on John Waters.

In this volume Brecht has replaced his detailed scenarios with broader, but even more baroque, personal evaluations of the works he has seen: Still in the flush of his first imperfection broadcasting untellable riches, Charles [Ludlam] immediately without hesitation entered his Classic period, putting on Whores of Babylon (by Bill Vehr) and then Turds in Hell (based on an idea of Bill's), grandiose Christian moralities, personal pictures of homosexual misery in the grand format of existential maps. The party-going camouflage of naive fun shed, no longer in a living-out on stage, their opulent disorder, aristocratic crudity, unostentatious shamelessness was the adequate form of a content in ideal beauty, which is why i use the word >classic<>Shower] was an exercise in the pseudo-wit of smutty puns, the author's attempt to elevate the speech of the boroughs into art, an art that would provide a kind of entertainment. This art, though like Oscar Wilde's an art of speech, is literary rather that theatrical in that, a play on language, it focusses the audience on language rather than character, and does not create tension or advance action. The puns hinge on meaning, a not too clever double entendre, but Tavel is stuck on sound, addicted to alliteration.

Accordingly, Brecht sums up Tavel as a writer of "cleverness," focusing on, in place of a ridiculous theatre (a term first coined by Tavel), on what he calls a "disgusting use of language."
In short, although one is seldom given an easy go of it, Brecht takes us through the various stages of experimental New York theater in a way no one previously has been able to accomplish. And what a joyful, if some sometimes carping, trip that is!

One might add that what this artist attempted to do for the theater taking place mostly in lower Manhattan, in his two collections of poetry, Poems of 1975 and 1978 and 8th Avenue Poems, he attempted to capture for that same area's streets. These are not carefully sculpted poems but often raw expressions, not without their own sentimentality, of city life.

a hum in the air envelops the wheeling flocks of pigeons above the gliding cars,
as a newspaper page in the lesser format of the tabloids
with agility slips off the sidewalk.

From another poem:

dream, befittingly disquieting,
the morning's sea throwing the dream's transtemporal fluidity into city
street's straight line, eerily dissolves
the night's phantom solidity of matter
into aspect of time....

In a sense, through his very personal encounters, both everyday and cultural, with the American scene, and despite his European upbringing, Brecht was the most American of Americans. In a poem title "Addendum" he writes:

I walk here and I don't have to
and I wasn't meant to, the houses about me always
perfectly clear. No thread ties me to them, eyes only
that see and they sink into me
and the traffic too and the people
and never become mine
and don't touch me.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Yet I feel perfectly at home here.
So you see I am not even afraid
nor merely discontent,
but simply unnourished, myself not stirring ever
an old man virginal.

This is the truth.

At a performance at Mabou Mines , I introduced myself to Stefan Brecht and his current wife, Rena Gill, who were attending the play. Suffering from the pro-gressive brain disease, Lewy body dementia, Brecht looked frail, his head and arms heavily shaking. Upon hearing of his death last month, I again mused what a great loss to the theatre world that Brecht had not been spared to complete his books.

New York, May 10, 2009

Copyright (c) 2009 by Douglas Messerli

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


by Vladimir Mayakovsky 
Translated from the Russian by Paul Schmidt 

The play was first performed at the Luna Park Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia in November 1913. 

The text provided here was first published in 50: A Celebration of Sun & Moon Classics (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995). The typesetting and composition was done by Guy Bennett. 

Click here for text:

English language translation copyright (c) 1995 by Paul Schmidt. Reprinted by permission.

CAUTION: Professionals and amateurs are hereby warned that this edition of Vladimir Mayakovsky is subject to a royalty. It is fully protected under the copyright laws of the United States of American and of all countries covered by the International Copyright Union, and of all countries covered by the Pan-American Copyright Convention. All rights, including professional, amateur, motion pictures, recitation, public reading, radio braodcasting, television, video or sound taping, and all other forms of mechanical or electronic reproduction, as well as the rights of translation are strictly reserved. For permissions, please contact Green Integer Press,

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Douglas Messerli "A Necessary Remedy" (on Jane Bowles' In the Summer House)

by Douglas Messerli

Jane Bowles (with music by Paul Bowles) In the Summer House, Playhouse Theatre, New York, December 29, 1953

The play was revived at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre of the Lincoln Center, New York, August 1, 1993, (incidental music by Philip Glass)

It was the year of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, the year that saw the first color television set, the great flood in the North Sea and “great” tornadoes in Michigan (the storms killing more than 200 people). The Platters and The Four Tops began their musical careers. The year saw the deaths of two great theater legends, Eugene O’Neill and Lee Shubert (one of the three legendary Shubert brothers). Broadway saw productions of Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town. I was six years of age. Despite all these facts and my long-standing conviction that the 1950s is a highly misunderstood decade — more sophisticated than we imagine it today — I am still trying to comprehend what it must have been like to encounter Jane Bowles’ play that year of 1953, which ran for only 55 performances on Broadway.

The play actually had a history that went back to the late 1940s. Bowles’ friend Oliver Smith evidently had been trying to convince Jane to write a play for several years, and in 1946 and 1947, in Vermont and Paris, she wrote much of the play, the first act of which was published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1947. In 1951 the play was performed at the Hedgerow Theater in Moylan, Pennsylvania, with Miriam Hopkins in the lead. Just before the Broadway production, Jane’s husband Paul came from Morocco to New York and wrote music for the work, seeing it through rehearsals and production.

How could actors and audiences of that time be prepared for such a work? Bowles’ writing is so original that it is hard to compare it with any other writer of the day —or perhaps even now. The expressionist and fantastic aspects of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire might be described as the work closest in tone to Bowles’ play. Williams, in fact, was a close friend of Jane’s. Bowles’ work, however, is far more comically surreal than even the most “campy” of Blanche’s observations in Williams’s 1947 production.

If Paul Bowles is to be believed, it is clear that the lead actor of the play, the great Judith Anderson, did not know what to make of the character. “Who am I? Who am I supposed to be?” she often asked in her frustrated interruptions of rehearsals. Evidently even the onstage psychoanalyst could not answer her. No one seemed to understand what the play was about.

Bowles herself clearly wanted actors that could play their roles in the grand manner of highly theatrical performance. She hand-selected both Judith Anderson for the role of Mrs. Eastman Cuevas and the divine Mildred Dunnock for Mrs. Constable. A young actor named James Dean was rejected for the lesser role of Lionel because he was too “normal.”

For Bowles narrative does not function in a traditional manner. There is no straightforward “plot” to this play, nor any of the tightly knit interconnecting patterns of scenes and acts that make up most so-called Broadway plays. Indeed the set changes in every scene of Act One—as it moves from a garden in Southern California to the beach and back to the garden—and Act Two, which occurs in the nearby popular restaurant. The characters shift focus throughout, as the major figure of Act I disappears—along with numerous other characters, including husband, sister-in-law, her daughter, and servants —from the very center of the play. Casual figures such as Lionel, whom we first encounter carrying an advertising placard displaying Neptune, become central characters. A young girl who appears briefly in two scenes (becoming a victim of either accident or murder) is “replaced” by her mother, who ultimately becomes perhaps the central figure in the play. A restaurant worker — Jean Stapleton in the original production —is later introduced, becoming an important voice of the second act. In short, the play moves forward through a near structureless series of “surprises,” twists, and turns in characters, plot, and meaning.

It is the emotional states of its figures that drive this work forward — and, at times, backward. Act One establishes the central character’s role and symbolic position immediately as Gertrude Eastman Cuevas stands upon the balcony of her beach home calling to her daughter below :“Are you in the summer house?.... Are you in the summer house?” wherein her daughter indeed has sequestered herself. Although she is front and center in the scene, Mrs. Eastman Cuevas is equally removed from all, even from the man whom she admits she may marry, Mr. Solares, who soon enters with sister, her daughter, and servants in tow. The comical picnic that follows — with Solares and family in the garden, Gertrude on the balcony, and Molly hidden away—sets the tone of the entire work: absurdity, imperiousness, humility, and complete acceptance of all of these are its matter.

Solares, the courtier of the haughty Mrs. Eastman Cuevas, politely attempts to present the strange scene as one of normality, while his sister, Esperanza, crudely pokes holes in the pretense of both. When Mrs. Eastman Cuevas expresses her love of the ocean, Esperanza declares that she “hates it.” When Gertrude (believing her first husband was not sufficiently interested in his job) asks Solares if he likes his work, Esperanza interrupts: “He don’t like no business —he likes to stay home and sleep — and eat.” Later, upon Gertrude’s disapproval of such a heavy meal in the middle of the day, the overweight Esperanza quickly catalogues the heavy breakfasts and lunches she and her family consume:

For breakfast: chocolate and sugar bread: for lunch:
soup, beans, eggs, rice, roast pork with potatoes
and guava paste…Next day: soup, eggs, beans, rice,
chicken with rice and guava paste —other day: soup,
eggs, beans, rice, stewed meat, roasted baby pig and
guava paste. Other day: soup, rice, beans, grilled
red snapper, roasted goat meat and guava paste.

So much for normality!

Enter Lionel and friends bearing placards of Neptune and a mermaid to advertise the local restaurant, The Lobster Bowl. Molly, called out of her hideaway to give them water, is delighted by the marvel of their costumes, and Lionel, clearly attracted to her, gives her a little plastic lobster as a gift. As if the stage were not filled enough as it was with its strange assortment of characters, Gertrude’s new lodger, Vivian, suddenly appears. She is as enthusiastic and excitable as Esperanza has been sarcastically honest. As quickly as she is whisked away into the house, her mother, Mrs. Constable, appears, worried about her overwrought daughter’s mental health.

In short, within a single scene Bowles has spilled 14 characters onto the stage —all but one in the play —expressing their various emotional states as if midway through a grand opera. And, in this sense, no further scenes can quite compare with the play’s first. The rest of the work, scene by scene, explores the various relations between these bigger-than-life figures.

Scene Two presents Molly one month later, temporarily out of hiding, as she encounters the vivacious and avaricious Vivian skillfully attempting to take her place in the hearts of both Gertrude and Lionel. The scene ends with Gertrude, Solares and his extended family, and Mrs. Constable in search of her beloved “bird.” The audience can only suspect what — through her slightly hysterical interrogations of her daughter —Gertrude clearly also suspects, that Molly has pushed Vivian over the cliff.

Scene Three, one month later, presents the aftermath (celebration is an incorrect word) of the double weddings of Gertrude and her daughter. As the women each prepare to leave their homes and face separation, with neither one seeming to perceive any future with her new husband, the dramatic attention shifts to the drunken Mrs. Constable, who, with her daughter’s death and no other purpose in life, has stayed on in the beach community. The interchange between these strong women, where Mrs. Constable expresses her preference for the sharp-tongued truth-teller Mrs. Lopez over the imposing bitch-liar she perceives in Mrs. Eastman Cuevas, presents a stunning encounter between a being who struggles to keep in control and another who has freed herself from nearly all constraints. It is as comical as it is shocking.

Act II, made up of two scenes, is nearly emptied of the first act’s dramatic force. The Lobster Bowl, where Lionel works, has become merely another “summer house” for Molly, as she passes the time with card games and reading and rereading her mother’s letters from Mexico. The witty interchanges between Inez, waitress in the restaurant, and Mrs. Constable are what saves these dark and dreary scenes from bringing the play to a near standstill. Yet, the play does begin to unwind, and Lionel, recognizing the need for change, suddenly becomes courageous enough to demand that he and Molly move away to St. Louis, where his brother is involved in selling barbecues. The hilarious irony of his shift from boiler to barbie is almost lost in the darkly comic, but often wise, discussions between Mrs. Constable and Molly, and the older woman’s attempts to convince her to follow Lionel, to escape the dark confines of her life.

Molly, however, has word that her mother is returning, and she awaits her arrival with joy and consternation. Her mother’s entry and her declarations of the horrible (and to the viewer/ reader, hilarious) life with the family in Mexico merely point up her selfishness. She is happy nowhere, neither on the balcony of the vine-covered beach house nor the highly peopled rooms of her husband’s abode. Now nearly powerless, she is must again find someone she can control. But just as the view of the garden was altered with her mother’s departure, so does her mother now seem changed in Molly’s perception. As her mother desperately tries to rein in her daughter by telling Mrs. Constable that Molly killed Vivian (which, interestingly enough, Mrs. Constable denies), Molly suddenly recognizes that she must escape, that she must leave with Lionel. Mrs. Eastman Cuevas, like Mrs. Constable, is left without a purpose, almost a child again herself, recalling some horrible unnamed event that we suspect was probably centered around an attempt to gain love.

Without wishing to sound as if I have undergone too many viewings of The Wizard of Oz (a movie, I admit, I saw again quite recently), I might suggest that Bowles’s characters could be compared with the three friends of Dorothy in search of a heart (Mrs. Eastman-Cuevas), a brain (Mrs. Constable), and courage (Lionel) in order to save the young heroine from the mistakes of their lives. The poignant conversation between Mrs.Constable and Molly near the end of the play point up the problems of nearly everyone involved in Bowles’ fantastical journey.

Warned in her mother’s letters not to dream, Molly is nearly ready to give up her life and submit again to her mother’s control. “Why shouldn’t you dream?” asks Mrs. Constable (I can hear Mildred Dunnock’s voice in the very question). “I used to waste a lot of time day-dreaming,”answers Molly. “Why shouldn’t you dream? Why didn’t she want you to?” Mrs. Constable persists. “Because she wanted me to grow up to be wonderful and strong like she is,” responds the young girl. Mrs. Constable and we, the audience, know that her mother—having abandoned all dreams —is neither wonderful nor strong. Like Vivian at the cliff, the balcony is merely a height from which one can easily fall. And so too is the ephemeral surf Mrs. Constable prefers —the foam on her face that makes her believe, momentarily, that life is beginning once more — insufficient to help one go on living. The needs of the heart and mind alone are never enough. One must have the courage to act. As Lionel puts it, the longer one puts off acting the harder it is to do so. “Suppose I kept on closing that door against the ocean every night because the ocean made me sad and then one night I went to open it and I couldn’t even find the door. Suppose I couldn’t tell it apart from the wall any more. Then it would be too late and we’d be shut in here forever once and for all.”

Jane Bowles describes the necessary remedy simply as a stage direction: Molly’s flight is sudden.

Los Angeles, July 14, 2005
Reprinted from My Year 2005: Terrifying Times (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2007). Copyright (c)2005 by Douglas Messerli

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Maurice Maeterlinck | THE INTRUDER

From a production of The Intruder by Ana Torfs, 2004

by Maurice Maeterlinck



The Intruder was first performed at Paul Fort's Theatre d'Art in Paris on May 20, 1891 as L'Intruse

[A dimly lighted room in an old country-house. A door on the right, a door on the left, and a small concealed door in a corner. At the back, stained-glass windows, in which the color green predominates, and a glass door opening on to a terrace. A Dutch clock in one corner. A lamp lighted.]
THE THREE DAUGHTERS: Come here, grandfather. Sit down under the lamp.
THE GRANDFATHER: There does not seem to me to be much light here.
THE FATHER: Shall we go on to the terrace, or stay in the room?
THE UNCLE: Would it not be better to stay here? It has rained the whole week, and the nights are damp and cold.
THE ELDEST DAUGHTER: Still the stars are shining.
THE UNCLE: Ah! stars--that's nothing.
THE GRANDFATHER: We had better stay here. One never knows what may happen.
THE FATHER: There is no longer any cause for anxiety. The danger is past, and she is saved . . . THE GRANDFATHER: I fancy she is not going on well . . . .
THE FATHER: Why do you say that?
THE GRANDFATHER: I have heard her speak.
THE FATHER: But the doctors assure us we may be easy . . . .
THE UNCLE: You know quite well that your father-in-law likes to alarm us needlessly.
THE GRANDFATHER: I do not look at these things as you others do.
THE UNCLE: You ought to rely on us, then, who can see. She looked very well this afternoon. She is sleeping quietly now; and we are not going to spoil, without any reason, the first comfortable evening that luck has thrown in our way . . . . It seems to me we have a perfect right to be easy, and even to laugh a little, this evening, without apprehension.
THE FATHER: That's true; this is the first time I have felt at home with my family since this terrible confinement.
THE UNCLE: When once illness has come into a house, it is as though a stranger had forced himself into the family circle.
THE FATHER: And then you understood, too, that you should count on no one outside the family.
THE UNCLE: You are quite right.
THE GRANDFATHER: Why could I not see my poor daughter to-day?
THE UNCLE: You know quite well--the doctor forbade it.
THE GRANDFATHER: I do not know what to think . . . .
THE UNCLE: It is absurd to worry.
THE GRANDFATHER: [pointing to the door on the left] She cannot hear us?
THE FATHER: We shall not talk too loud; besides, the door is very thick, and the Sister of Mercy is with her, and she is sure to warn us if we are making too much noise.
THE GRANDFATHER: [pointing to the door on the right] He cannot hear us?
THE GRANDFATHER: He is asleep?
THE FATHER: I suppose so.
THE GRANDFATHER: Someone had better go and see.
THE UNCLE: The little one would cause me more anxiety than your wife. It is now several weeks since he was born, and he has scarcely stirred. He has not cried once all the time! He is like a wax doll.
THE GRANDFATHER: I think he will be deaf--dumb too, perhaps--the usual result of a marriage between cousins . . . .
[A reproving silence.]
THE FATHER: I could almost wish him ill for the suffering he has caused his mother.
THE UNCLE: Do be reasonable; it is not the poor little thing's fault. He is quite alone in the room?
THE FATHER: Yes; the doctor does not wish him to stay in his mother's room any longer.
THE UNCLE: But the nurse is with him?
THE FATHER: No; she has gone to rest a little; she has well deserved it these last few days. Ursula, just go and see if he is asleep.
[THE THREE SISTERS get up, and go into the room on the right, hand in hand.]
THE FATHER: When will your sister come?
THE UNCLE: I think she will come about nine.
THE FATHER: It is past nine. I hope she will come this evening, my wife is so anxious to see her. THE UNCLE: She is certain to come. This will be the first time she has been here?
THE FATHER: She has never been into the house.
THE UNCLE: It is very difficult for her to leave her convent.
THE FATHER: Will she be alone?
THE UNCLE: I expect one of the nuns will come with her. They are not allowed to go out alone.
THE FATHER: But she is the Superior.
THE UNCLE: The rule is the same for all.
THE GRANDFATHER: Do you not feel anxious?
THE UNCLE: Why should we feel anxious? What's the good of harping on that? There is nothing more to fear.
THE GRANDFATHER: Your sister is older than you?
THE UNCLE: She is the eldest of us all.
THE GRANDFATHER: I do not know what ails me; I feel uneasy. I wish your sister were here.
THE UNCLE: She will come; she promised to.
THE GRANDFATHER: I wish this evening were over!
[THE THREE DAUGHTERS come in again.]
THE FATHER: He is asleep?
THE ELDEST DAUGHTER: Yes, father; very sound.
THE UNCLE: What shall we do while we are waiting?
THE GRANDFATHER: Waiting for what?
THE UNCLE: Waiting for our sister.
THE FATHER: You see nothing coming, Ursula?
THE ELDEST DAUGHTER: [at the window] Nothing, father.
THE FATHER: Not in the avenue? Can you see the avenue?
THE DAUGHTER: Yes, father; it is moonlight, and I can see the avenue as far as the cypress wood.
THE GRANDFATHER: And you do not see anyone?
THE DAUGHTER: No one, grandfather.
THE UNCLE: What sort of night is it?
THE DAUGHTER: Very fine. Do you hear the nightingales?
THE UNCLE: Yes, yes.
THE DAUGHTER: A little wind is rising in the avenue.
THE GRANDFATHER: A little wind in the avenue?
THE DAUGHTER: Yes; the trees are trembling a little.
THE UNCLE: I am surprised that my sister is not here yet.
THE GRANDFATHER: I cannot hear the nightingales any longer.
THE DAUGHTER: I think someone has come into the garden, grandfather.
THE DAUGHTER: I do not know; I can see no one.
THE UNCLE: Because there is no one there.
THE DAUGHTER: There must be someone in the garden; the nightingales have suddenly ceased singing.
THE GRANDFATHER: But I do not hear anyone coming.
THE DAUGHTER: Someone must be passing by the pond, because the swans are scared.
ANOTHER DAUGHTER: All the fishes in the pond are diving suddenly.
THE FATHER: You cannot see anyone?
THE DAUGHTER: No one, father.
THE FATHER: But the pond lies in the moonlight . . . .
THE DAUGHTER: Yes; I can see that the swans are scared.
THE UNCLE: I am sure it is my sister who is scaring them. She must have come in by the little gate.
THE FATHER: I cannot understand why the dogs do not bark.
THE DAUGHTER: I can see the watch-dog right at the back of his kennel. The swans are crossing to the other bank! . . .
THE UNCLE: They are afraid of my sister. I will go and see. [He calls.] Sister! sister! Is that you? . . . There is no one there.
THE DAUGHTER: I am sure that someone has come into the garden. You will see.
THE UNCLE: But she would answer me!
THE GRANDFATHER: Are not the nightingales beginning to sing again, Ursula?
THE DAUGHTER: I cannot hear one anywhere.
THE GRANDFATHER: And yet there is no noise.
THE FATHER: There is a silence of the grave.
THE GRANDFATHER: It must be some stranger that scares them, for if it were one of the family they would not be silent.
THE UNCLE: How much longer are you going to discuss these nightingales?
THE GRANDFATHER: Are all the windows open, Ursula?
THE DAUGHTER: The glass door is open, grandfather.
THE GRANDFATHER: It seems to me that the cold is penetrating into the room.
THE DAUGHTER: There is a little wind in the garden, grandfather, and the rose-leaves are falling.
THE FATHER: Well, shut the door. It is late.
THE DAUGHTER: Yes, father. . . . I cannot shut the door.
THE TWO OTHER DAUGHTERS: We cannot shut the door.
THE GRANDFATHER: Why, what is the matter with the door, my children?
THE UNCLE: You need not say that in such an extraordinary voice. I will go and help them.
THE ELDEST DAUGHTER: We cannot manage to shut it quite.
THE UNCLE: It is because of the damp. Let us all push together. There must be something in the way.
THE FATHER: The carpenter will set it right to-morrow.
THE GRANDFATHER: Is the carpenter coming to-morrow?
THE DAUGHTER: Yes, grandfather; he is coming to do some work in the cellar.
THE GRANDFATHER: He will make a noise in the house.
THE DAUGHTER: I will tell him to work quietly.
[Suddenly the sound of a scythe being sharpened is heard outside.]
THE GRANDFATHER: [with a shudder] Oh!
THE UNCLE: What is that?
THE DAUGHTER: I don't quite know; I think it is the gardener. I cannot quite see; he is in the shadow of the house.
THE FATHER: It is the gardener going to mow.
THE UNCLE: He mows by night?
THE FATHER: Is not to-morrow Sunday?--Yes.--I noticed that the grass was very long round the house.
THE GRANDFATHER: It seems to me that his scythe makes as much noise . . .
THE DAUGHTER: He is moving near the house.
THE GRANDFATHER: Can you see him, Ursula?
THE DAUGHTER: No, grandfather. He stands in the dark.
THE GRANDFATHER: I am afraid he will wake my daughter.
THE UNCLE: We can scarcely hear him.
THE GRANDFATHER: It sounds to me as if he were mowing inside the house.
THE UNCLE: The invalid will not hear it; there is no danger.
THE FATHER: It seems to me that the lamp is not burning well this evening.
THE UNCLE: It wants filling.
THE FATHER: I saw it filled this morning. It has burnt badly since the window was shut.
THE UNCLE: I fancy the chimney is dirty.
THE FATHER: It will burn better presently.
THE DAUGHTER: Grandfather is asleep. He has not slept for three nights.
THE FATHER: He has been so much worried.
THE UNCLE: He always worries too much. At times he will not listen to reason.
THE FATHER: It is quite excusable at his age.
THE UNCLE: God knows what we shall be like at his age!
THE FATHER: He is nearly eighty.
THE UNCLE: Then he has a right to be strange.
THE FATHER: He is like all blind people.
THE UNCLE: They think too much.
THE FATHER: They have too much time to spare.
THE UNCLE: They have nothing else to do.
THE FATHER: And besides, they have no distractions.
THE UNCLE: That must be terrible.
THE FATHER: Apparently one gets used to it.
THE UNCLE: I cannot imagine it.
THE FATHER: They are certainly to be pitied.
THE UNCLE: Not to know where one is, not to know where one has come from, not to know whither one is going, not to be able to distinguish midday from midnight, or summer from winter--and always darkness, darkness! I would rather not live. Is it absolutely incurable?
THE FATHER: Apparently so.
THE UNCLE: But he is not absolutely blind?
THE FATHER: He can perceive a strong light.
THE UNCLE: Let us take care of our poor eyes.
THE FATHER: He often has strange ideas.
THE UNCLE: At times he is not at all amusing.
THE FATHER: He says absolutely everything he thinks.
THE UNCLE: But he was not always like this?
THE FATHER: No; once he was a rational as we are; he never said anything extraordinary. I am afraid Ursula encourages him a little too much; she answers all his questions. . . .
THE UNCLE: It would be better not to answer them. It's a mistaken kindness to him.
[Ten o'clock strikes.]
THE GRANDFATHER: [waking up] Am I facing the glass door?
THE DAUGHTER: You have had a nice sleep, grandfather?
THE GRANDFATHER: Am I facing the glass door?
THE DAUGHTER: Yes, grandfather.
THE GRANDFATHER: There is nobody at the glass door?
THE DAUGHTER: No, grandfather; I do not see anyone.
THE GRANDFATHER: I thought someone was waiting. No one has come?
THE DAUGHTER: No one, grandfather.
THE GRANDFATHER: [to the UNCLE and FATHER] And your sister has not come?
THE UNCLE: It is too late; she will not come now. It is not nice of her.
THE FATHER: I'm beginning to be anxious about her.
[A noise, as of someone coming into the house.]
THE UNCLE: She is here! Did you hear?
THE FATHER: Yes; someone has come in at the basement.
THE UNCLE: It must be our sister. I recognize her step.
THE GRANDFATHER: I heard slow footsteps.
THE FATHER: She came in very quietly.
THE UNCLE: She knows there is an invalid.
THE GRANDFATHER: I hear nothing now.
THE UNCLE: She will come up directly; they will tell her we are here.
THE FATHER: I am glad she has come.
THE UNCLE: I was sure she would come this evening.
THE GRANDFATHER: She is a very long time coming up.
THE UNCLE: However, it must be her.
THE FATHER: We are not expecting any other visitors.
THE GRANDFATHER: I cannot hear any noise in the basement.
THE FATHER: I will call the servant. We shall know how things stand. [He pulls a bell-rope.]
THE GRANDFATHER: I can hear a noise on the stairs already.
THE FATHER: It is the servant coming up.
THE GRANDFATHER: It sounds to me as if she were not alone.
THE FATHER: She is coming up slowly. . . .
THE GRANDFATHER: I hear your sister's step!
THE FATHER: I can only hear the servant.
THE GRANDFATHER: It is your sister! It is your sister!
[There is a knock at the little door.]
THE UNCLE: She is knocking at the door of the back stairs.
THE FATHER: I will go and open myself. [He partly opens the little door; THE SERVANT remains outside in the opening.] Where are you?
THE SERVANT: Here, sir.
THE GRANDFATHER: Your sister is at the door?
THE UNCLE: I can only see the servant.
THE FATHER: It is only the servant. [to THE SERVANT] Who was that, that came into the house?
THE SERVANT: Came into the house?
THE FATHER: Yes; someone came in just now?
THE SERVANT: No one came in, sir.
THE GRANDFATHER: Who is it sighing like that?
THE UNCLE: It is the servant; she is out of breath.
THE GRANDFATHER: Is she crying?
THE UNCLE: No; why should she be crying?
THE FATHER: [to THE SERVANT] No one came in just now?
THE FATHER: But we heard someone open the door!
THE SERVANT: I was shutting the door.
THE FATHER: It was open?
THE SERVANT: Yes, sir.
THE FATHER: Why was it open at this time of night?
THE SERVANT: I do not know, sir. I had shut it myself.
THE FATHER: Then who was it that opened it?
THE SERVANT: I do not know, sir. Someone must have gone out after me, sir. . . .
THE FATHER: You must be careful.--Don't push the door; you know what a noise it makes!
THE SERVANT: But, sir, I am not touching the door.
THE FATHER: But you are. You are pushing as if you were trying to get into the room.
THE SERVANT: But, sir, I am three yards away from the door.
THE FATHER: Don't talk so loud. . . .
THE GRANDFATHER: Are they putting out the light?
THE ELDEST DAUGHTER: No, grandfather.
THE GRANDFATHER: It seems to me it has grown pitch dark all at once.
THE FATHER: [to THE SERVANT] You can go down again now; but do not make so much noise on the stairs.
THE SERVANT: I did not make any noise on the stairs.
THE FATHER: I tell you that you did make a noise. Go down quietly; you will wake your mistress. And if anyone comes now, say that we are not at home.
THE UNCLE: Yes; say that we are not at home.
THE GRANDFATHER: [shuddering] You must not say that!
THE FATHER: . . . Except to my sister and the doctor.
THE UNCLE: When will the doctor come?
THE FATHER: He will not be able to come before midnight. [He shuts the door. A clock is heard striking eleven.]
THE GRANDFATHER: She has come in?
THE FATHER: No, she has gone downstairs.
THE GRANDFATHER: I thought that she was sitting at the table.
THE UNCLE: The servant?
THE UNCLE: That would complete one's happiness!
THE GRANDFATHER: No one has come into the room?
THE FATHER: No; no one has come in.
THE GRANDFATHER: And your sister is not here?
THE UNCLE: Our sister has not come.
THE GRANDFATHER: You want to deceive me.
THE UNCLE: Deceive you?
THE GRANDFATHER: Ursula, tell me the truth, for the love of God!
THE ELDEST DAUGHTER: Grandfather! Grandfather! what is the matter with you?
THE GRANDFATHER: Something has happened! I am sure my daughter is worse! . . .
THE UNCLE: Are you dreaming?
THE GRANDFATHER: You do not want to tell me! . . . I can see quite well there is something. . .
THE UNCLE: In that case you can see better than we can.
THE GRANDFATHER: Ursula, tell me the truth!
THE DAUGHTER: But we have told you the truth, grandfather!
THE GRANDFATHER: You do not speak in your ordinary voice.
THE FATHER: That is because you frighten her.
THE GRANDFATHER: Your voice is changed too.
THE FATHER: You are going mad! [He and THE UNCLE make signs to each other to signify THE GRANDFATHER has lost his reason.]
THE GRANDFATHER: I can hear quite well that you are afraid.
THE FATHER: But what should we be afraid of?
THE GRANDFATHER: Why do you want to deceive me?
THE UNCLE: Who is thinking of deceiving you?
THE GRANDFATHER: Why have you put out the light?
THE UNCLE: But the light has not been put out; there is as much light as there was before.
THE DAUGHTER: It seems to me that the lamp has gone down.
THE FATHER: I see as well now as ever.
THE GRANDFATHER: I have millstones in my eyes! Tell me, girls, what is going on here! Tell me, for the love of God, you who can see! I am here, all alone, in darkness without end! I do not know who seats himself beside me! I do not know what is happening a yard from me! . . . Why were you talking under your breath just now?
THE FATHER: No one was talking under his breath.
THE GRANDFATHER: You did talk in a low voice at the door.
THE FATHER: You heard all I said.
THE GRANDFATHER: You brought someone into the room! . . .
THE FATHER: But I tell you no one has come in!
THE GRANDFATHER: Is it your sister or a priest?--You should not try to deceive me.--Ursula, who was it came in?
THE DAUGHTER: No one, grandfather.
THE GRANDFATHER: You must not try to deceive me; I know what I know.--How many of us are there here?
THE DAUGHTER: There are six of us round the table, grandfather.
THE GRANDFATHER: You are all round the table?
THE DAUGHTER: Yes, grandfather.
THE GRANDFATHER: You are there, Paul?
THE GRANDFATHER: You are there, Oliver?
THE UNCLE: Yes, of course I am here, in my usual place. That's not alarming, is it?
THE GRANDFATHER: You are there, Geneviève?
ONE OF THE DAUGHTERS: Yes, grandfather.
THE GRANDFATHER: You are there, Gertrude?
ANOTHER DAUGHTER: Yes, grandfather.
THE GRANDFATHER: You are there, Ursula?
THE ELDEST DAUGHTER: Yes, grandfather; next to you.
THE GRANDFATHER: And who is that sitting there?
THE DAUGHTER: Where do you mean, grandfather?--There is no one.
THE GRANDFATHER: There, there--in the midst of us!
THE DAUGHTER: But there is no one, grandfather!
THE FATHER: We tell you there is no one!
THE GRANDFATHER: But you cannot see--any of you!
THE UNCLE: Pshaw! You are joking?
THE GRANDFATHER: I do not feel inclined for joking, I can assure you.
THE UNCLE: Then believe those who can see.
THE GRANDFATHER: [undecidedly] I thought there was someone. . . . I believe I shall not live long. . . .
THE UNCLE: Why should we deceive you? What use would there be in that?
THE FATHER: It would be our duty to tell you the truth. . . .
THE UNCLE: What would be the good of deceiving each other?
THE FATHER: You could not live in error long.
THE GRANDFATHER: [trying to rise] I should like to pierce this darkness! . . .
THE FATHER: Where do you want to go?
THE GRANDFATHER: Over there. . . .
THE FATHER: Don't be so anxious. . . .
THE UNCLE: You are strange this evening.
THE GRANDFATHER: It is all of you who seem to me to be strange!
THE FATHER: Do you want anything? . . .
THE GRANDFATHER: I do not know what ails me.
THE ELDEST DAUGHTER: Grandfather! grandfather! What do you want, grandfather?
THE GRANDFATHER: Give me your little hands, my children.
THE THREE DAUGHTERS: Yes, grandfather.
THE GRANDFATHER: Why are you all three trembling, girls?
THE ELDEST DAUGHTER: We are scarcely trembling at all, grandfather.
THE GRANDFATHER: I fancy you are all three pale.
THE ELDEST DAUGHTER: It is late, grandfather, and we are tired.
THE FATHER: You must go to bed, and grandfather himself would do well to take a little rest.
THE GRANDFATHER: I could not sleep to-night!
THE UNCLE: We will wait for the doctor.
THE GRANDFATHER: Prepare me for the truth.
THE UNCLE: But there is no truth!
THE GRANDFATHER: Then I do not know what there is!
THE UNCLE: I tell you there is nothing at all!
THE GRANDFATHER: I wish I could see my poor daughter!
THE FATHER: But you know quite well it is impossible; she must not be waked unnecessarily.
THE UNCLE: You will see her to-morrow.
THE GRANDFATHER: There is no sound in her room.
THE UNCLE: I should be uneasy if I heard any sound.
THE GRANDFATHER: It is a very long time since I saw my daughter! . . . I took her hands yesterday evening, but I could not see her! . . . I do not know what has become of her! . . . I do not know how she is. . . . I do not know what her face is like now. . . . She must have changed these weeks! . . . I felt the little bones of her cheeks under my hands. . . . There is nothing but the darkness between her and me, and the rest of you! . . . I cannot go on living like this. . . . this is not living. . . . You sit there, all of you, looking with open eyes at my dead eyes, and not one of you has pity on me! . . . I do not know what ails me. . . . No one tells me what ought to be told me. . . . And everything is terrifying when one's dreams dwell upon it. . . . But why are you not speaking?
THE UNCLE: What should we say, since you will not believe us?
THE GRANDFATHER: You are afraid of betraying yourselves!
THE FATHER: Come now, be rational!
THE GRANDFATHER: You have been hiding something from me for a long time! . . . Something has happened in the house. . . . But I am beginning to understand now. . . . You have been deceiving me too long!--You fancy that I shall never know anything?--There are moments when I am less blind than you, you know! . . . Do you think I have not heard you whispering--for days and days--as if you were in the house of someone who had been hanged--I dare not say what I know this evening. . . . But I shall know the truth! . . . I shall wait for you to tell me the truth; but I have known it for a long time, in spite of you!--And now, I feel that you are all paler than the dead!
THE THREE DAUGHTERS: Grandfather! grandfather! What is the matter, grandfather?
THE GRANDFATHER: It is not you that I am speaking of, girls. No, it is not you that I am speaking of. . . . I know quite well you would tell me the truth--if they were not by! . . . And besides, I feel sure that they are deceiving you as well. . . . You will see, children--you will see! . . . Do not I hear you all sobbing?
THE FATHER: Is my wife really so ill?
THE GRANDFATHER: It is no good trying to deceive me any longer; it is too late now, and I know the truth better than you! . . .
THE UNCLE: But we are not blind; we are not.
THE FATHER: Would you like to go into your daughter's room? This misunderstanding must be put an end to.--Would you?
THE GRANDFATHER: [becoming suddenly undecided] No, no, not now--not yet.
THE UNCLE: You see, you are not reasonable.
THE GRANDFATHER: One never knows how much a man has been unable to express in his life! . . . Who made that noise?
THE ELDEST DAUGHTER: It is the lamp, flickering, grandfather.
THE GRANDFATHER: It seems to me to be very unsteady--very!
THE DAUGHTER: It is the cold wind troubling it. . . .
THE UNCLE: There is no cold wind, the windows are shut.
THE DAUGHTER: I think it is going out.
THE FATHER: There is no more oil.
THE DAUGHTER: It has gone right out.
THE FATHER: We cannot stay like this in the dark.
THE UNCLE: Why not?--I am quite accustomed to it.
THE FATHER: There is a light in my wife's room.
THE UNCLE: We will take it from there presently, when the doctor has been.
THE FATHER: Well, we can see enough here; there is the light from outside.
THE GRANDFATHER: Is it light outside?
THE FATHER: Lighter than here.
THE UNCLE: For my part, I would as soon talk in the dark.
THE FATHER: So would I. [Silence.]
THE GRANDFATHER: It seems to me the clock makes a great deal of noise. . . .
THE ELDEST DAUGHTER: That is because we are not talking any more, grandfather.
THE GRANDFATHER: But why are you all silent?
THE UNCLE: What do you want us to talk about?--You are really very peculiar to-night.
THE GRANDFATHER: It is very dark in this room?
THE UNCLE: There is not much light. [Silence.]
THE GRANDFATHER: I do not feel well, Ursula; open the window a little.
THE FATHER: Yes, child; open the window a little. I begin to feel the want of air myself. [The girl opens the window.]
THE UNCLE: I really believe we have stayed shut up too long.
THE GRANDFATHER: Is the window open?
THE DAUGHTER: Yes, grandfather; it is wide open.
THE GRANDFATHER: One would not have thought it was open; there is not a sound outside.
THE DAUGHTER: No, grandfather; there is not the slightest sound.
THE FATHER: The silence is extraordinary!
THE DAUGHTER: One could hear an angel tread!
THE UNCLE: That is why I do not like the country.
THE GRANDFATHER: I wish I could hear some sound. What o'clock is it, Ursula?
THE DAUGHTER: It will soon be midnight, grandfather.
[Here THE UNCLE begins to pace up and down the room.]
THE GRANDFATHER: Who is that walking round us like that?
THE UNCLE: Only I! only I! Do not be frightened! I want to walk about a little. [Silence.]--But I am going to sit down again;--I cannot see where I am going. [Silence.]
THE GRANDFATHER: I wish I were out of this place!
THE DAUGHTER: Where would you like to go, grandfather?
THE GRANDFATHER: I do not know where--into another room, no matter where! no matter where!
THE FATHER: Where could we go?
THE UNCLE: It is too late to go anywhere else. [Silence. They are sitting, motionless, round the table.]
THE GRANDFATHER: What is that I hear, Ursula?
THE DAUGHTER: Nothing, grandfather; it is the leaves falling.--Yes, it is the leaves falling on the terrace.
THE GRANDFATHER: Go and shut the window, Ursula.
THE DAUGHTER: Yes, grandfather.
[She shuts the window, comes back, and sits down.]
THE GRANDFATHER: I am cold. [Silence. THE THREE SISTERS kiss each other.] What is that I hear now?
THE FATHER: It is the three sisters kissing each other.
THE UNCLE: It seems to me they are very pale this evening. [Silence.]
THE GRANDFATHER: What is that I hear now, Ursula?
THE DAUGHTER: Nothing, grandfather; it is the clasping of my hands. [Silence.]
THE GRANDFATHER: And that? . . .
THE DAUGHTER: I do not know, grandfather . . . perhaps my sisters are trembling a little? . . .
THE GRANDFATHER: I am afraid, too, my children.
[Here a ray of moonlight penetrates through a corner of the stained glass, and throws strange gleams here and there in the room. A clock strikes midnight; at the last stroke there is a very vague sound, as of someone rising in haste.]
THE GRANDFATHER: [shuddering with peculiar horror] Who is that who got up?
THE UNCLE: No one got up!
THE FATHER: I did not get up!
THE GRANDFATHER: Someone got up from the table!
THE UNCLE: Light the lamp! . . .
[Cries of terror are suddenly heard from the child's room, on the right; these cries continue, with gradations of horror, until the end of the scene.]
THE FATHER: Listen to the child!
THE UNCLE: He has never cried before!
THE FATHER: Let us go and see him!
THE UNCLE: The light! The light!
[At this moment, quick and heavy steps are heard in the room on the left.--Then a deathly silence.--They listen in mute terror, until the door of the room opens slowly, the light from it cast into the room where they are sitting, and the Sister of Mercy appears on the threshold, in her black garments, and bows as she makes the sign of the cross, to announce the death of his wife. They understand, and, after a moment of hesitation and fright, silently enter the chamber of death, while THE UNCLE politely steps aside on the threshold to let the three girls pass. The blind man, left alone, gets up, agitated, and feels his way round the table in the darkness.]
THE GRANDFATHER: Where are you going?--Where are you going?--The girls have left me all alone!


Douglas Messerli "Shadowing the Shadows" (on James Strahs and the Wooster Group's North Atlantic)


by Douglas Messerli

James Strahs (author), performed by The Wooster Group North Atlantic / first performed with the Globe Theater Company in Eindhoven, Netherlands in 1984 and at The Performing Garage, New York, 1985 / The production I saw was performed at Redcat (The Roy and Edna Disney/Cal Arts Theater in the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday, February 20, 2010)

James Strahs North Atlantic in Wordplays 5: An Anthology of New American Drama (New York: PAJ Publications, 1986)

It is 1983 aboard a U.S. military aircraft carrier, 12 miles off the coast of Holland. The action of the first four scenes all occur at the Operations Room, "Sometime," "Sometime Later," "Sometime Even Later," and "Sometime Even Later Than That," while Scene Five is supposedly at "The Club," and Scene Six "On Deck—Early the Next Morning." It hardly matters, for throughout all action takes place on a highly racked stage with a long table seemingly threatening to propel itself into the audience. Behind the table sit mostly women, most notably Ensign Word-Processor Ann Pusey (Kate Valk) and Master Sergeant Mary Bryzynsky (Frances McDormand), who along with others are seen busily threading and rethreading audiotapes while they toss sometimes banal, sometimes witty, nearly always bawdy statements at each other and the military men, Captain N. I. Roscoe Chizzum (Ari Fliakos), General Lance "Rod" Benders (Paul Lazar), and the two Marine Privates under whom and with whom they work.

Their job, we are told, is to intercept messages, to gather intelligence. But their actions seldom betray any mental intelligence and involve such quickly spoken and clipped sentences that it seems unimaginable that anyone, including themselves, might comprehend the language. Rather, we glean, perhaps as they do in their "interceptions," only quick stutterings from hundreds of films referencing war (From Here to Eternity, Sands of Iwo Jima, Operation Petticoat, Dr. Strangelove, The Manchurian Candidate, even South Pacific), punctuated by brief musical ditties ("Git Along Little Doggies," "Back in the Saddle," and "Yankee Doodle"), and silly and puny sexual references. The girls are hot for the men and Captain Roscoe and Colonel Lloyd "Ned" Lud seem always about to duke it out over the gals—except for their fascination with each other.

As in most the works by The Wooster Group, however, none of this "means" in the traditional sense. In fact most of the chatter, the dialogue of the play, is cut short time and again, with the sound of screeching aircraft, explosions, and doublespeak left hanging in mid-sentence. Like the messages these "sailors" are purportedly tapping into, what the audience gets is mostly feed-back, a perpetual chatter of cultural refuse that can never be truly decoded.

Reading the play—albeit the version I read was clearly radically changed by the 2010 production—one becomes even more intrigued by the endless sexual innuendos. Indeed, no sex actually occurs in the play; the big bash which was to have ended in the Miss wet uniform contest, is, just like everything else in this play, a shadow, an event that never happens. The constant sexual metaphors that fly between the women of this ship ("Hey, career girl, they're all beer heads. They drink beer right from the tap. All I've got to do is press the lever and they take it right down the throat. I can put in a coke bottle I'm holding between by boots...You got to make them squirt.") are just that, things of language, potentially dangerous, but not of the world of substance. Many of the women may hope for conventional lives, but it is hard to imagine that after the insanity of their military duty that any of them will ever be able to endure normality—however one defines that.

Rather than serving any military purpose, this vessel might be most closely compared to The Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship doomed to sail the seas, sending out messages to people living and long dead. In fact, we later discern, this ship is only a decoy for the "real" work being done 500 miles from what we are witnessing. In short, the world we encounter in North Atlantic is only a mirror of another such floating machine of decipher, which may in turn be just a shadow of another, and on and on, with no reality possible in a world where culture and imitation, parody, and camp have become inseparable. In this prisonhouse of language, gesture—at the heart of The Wooster Group's art—is the only thing that saves people from whirling off into space. With a growl, a grin, a randy scratch, a wistful smile, a grit of teeth, Captain Chizzum and his crew of ghosts seem, at times, hilariously alive, even when serenaded by Bach's "Come Sweet Death."

Los Angeles, February 24, 2010

Douglas Messerli "Food For Love" (on Alfred Kreymborg's Lima Beans)

The Provinctown Playhouse, New York

by Douglas Messerli

Alfred Kreymborg Lima Beans: A Scherzo-Play / The Provincetown Plays, Autumn 1916
Reprinted in USTheater, August 2010

In the summer of 1914, Alfred Kreymborg was invited to the Connecticut art colony named Silvermine, founded by the British art critic Charles Caffin and his wife. While there, the poet and former editor of The Glebe, worked on his manuscript titled Mushrooms, published in 1916, in which several of the pieces were written as prose poems with rhythmic dialogues, an example of which I've reproduced below:


Brother Tree:
Why do you reach and reach?
do you dream some day to touch the sky?
Brother Stream:
Why do you run and run?
do you dream some day to fill the sea?
Brother Bird:
Why do you sing and sing?
do you dream—

Young Man:
Why do you talk and talk and talk

These dialogue poems, in turn, influenced in part by the thinking of Gordon Craig, who argued for directorial dominance in the theater, with the use of actors as mere marionettes, encouraged Kreymborg to try his hand at playwriting. Adding his own love of and knowledge of music as well, Kreymborg wrote a short play, "Lima Beans," one of many throughout his career.
"Lima Beans," in particular, allowed Kreymborg to combine his poetic talents with his philosophical sense of humor, without applying the stylized poetic conceits that often appear his poetry itself.

Kreymborg's comic gem has very little "plot." A wife, recently married, decides to change the basic ingredient of her husband's diet, just for variety's sake. Calling out to the passing Huckster, whom we see briefly only twice from the window, the wife orders up some string beans instead of the usual limas. Upon the husband's arrival home from a day at work, the two fall into what has clearly become a pattern of domestication which, at moments, seems almost as abusive as Helmar's descriptions of Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House ("good mouse," "queer little dear," etc.). But their relationship is fresh, and they remain in love, each kissing one another "daintily six times."

Ready for his meal, the husband declares his hunger, as she nervously brings forth the serving bowl. His immediate disgust is quickly established, as he throws out its contents, sputtering out his anger as if he were a Shakespearian King having witnessed the downfall of his kingdom:

I perspire tears and blood drops
in a town or in the fields
on the sea or in a balloon,
with my pickaxe or my fiddle
just to come home
footsore, staring, doubled with appetite
to a meal of —string beans?
Where are my limas?
You would dethrone it?
You would play renegade?
You'd raise an usurper
in the person of this
elongated, cadaverous,
throat-scratching, greenish

His victim collapses in horror, as he hastily leaves the house. The comic ridiculousness of this domestic spat satirizes not only the role of any housewife who is subjected to her companion's tastes, but demolishes the notion that there can of any experimentation in this couple's relationship, making anyone who has lived with another being unable to accommodate changes in his or her life uncomfortable, in the way that Henri Bergson argues comedy always does.
With what Kreymborg describes as "housewifely shrewdness," the woman calls back the Huckster, quickly buys some lima beans, and deftly cooks them, just in time for her husband's return to apologize.

The slightness of these themes, however, is more than made up for in the musical phrases of the quick-paced dialogue (including the stage descriptions); and, although I have never seen a production of this play, one can imagine the marvelous potentialities of the actors (or, perhaps, even puppets, as Kreymborg suggested it was to be cast).

Evidently, the famed human cast, poet and artist Mina Loy, poet and doctor William Carlos Williams, and artist-designer William Zorach, easily took up the task, reading the "score" with great gusto, Loy clearly sensing the issues of the marriage theme, and Williams, according to Kreymborg, "in terror lest he blow up." Williams writes that Zorach sang his role "with zest and vehemence," looking somewhat like Harpo Marx.

Both Loy and Williams wore costumes of their own making, Loy stunningly dressed in a green gown and one of her own hand-made broaches, which according to Kreymborg, was "not in keeping with Mrs. Lima." The curtain created by the Zorachs, apparently was dressed as Kreymborg conceived it, "painted in festoons of vegetables," and performed admirably, coming down--since, the author admits, it cannot see and has no comprehension--in the midst of the husband's final question, which may have been an invitation to sex.

Los Angeles, August 15, 2010

Alfred Kreymborg | LIMA BEANS

Alfred Kreymborg

A Scherzo-Play

by Alfred Kreymborg

Lima Beans was originally produced by The Provincetown Players, Autumn, 1916

Original Cast

The Wife...................................................Mina Loy
The Husband...........................................William Carlos Williams
The Huckster..........................................William Zorach

Set and costumes designed by William and Marguerite Zorach

SCENE. The characters are four: husband, wife, the voice of a huckster and — the curtain. Husband and wife might be two marionettes. The scene is a miniature dining room large enough to contain a small table, two chairs, a tiny sideboard, an open window, a closed door leading to the other rooms, and additional elbow space. Pantomime is modestly indulged by husband and wife, suggesting an inoffensive parody, unless the author errs, of the contours of certain ancient Burmese dances. The impedimenta of occasional rhymes are unpremeditated. If there must be a prelude of music, let it be nothing more consequential than one of the innocuous parlor rondos of Carl Maria von Weber. As a background color scheme, black and white might not prove amiss.
As the curtain, which is painted in festoons of vegetables, rises gravely, the wife is disclosed setting the table for dinner. Aided by the sideboard, she has attended to her place, as witness the neat arrangement of plate, cup and saucer, and knife, fork and spoons at one side. Now, more consciously, she begins the performance of the important duty opposite. This question of concrete paraphernalia, and the action consequent thereupon, might of course be left entirely to the imagination of the beholder.

THE WIFE. (wistfully whimsical). Put a knife here,
place a fork there —
marriage is greater than love.
Give him a large spoon,
give him a small —
you're sure of your man when you dine him.
A cup for his coffee,
a saucer for spellings,
a plate rimmed with roses
to hold his night's fillings —
roses for hearts, ah,
but food for the appetite!
Mammals are happiest home after dark!
(The rite over, she stands off in critical admiration, her arms
akimbo, her head bobbing from side to side. Then, seriously,
as she eyes the husband's dinner plate
But what shall I give him to eat to-night?
It mustn't be limas,
we've always had limas —
one more lima would shatter his love!
[An answer comes through the open window from the dulcet
insinuatingly persuasive horn of the huckster
Oh, ah, ooh!
THE HUCKSTER. (singing mysteriously).
I got tomatoes,
I got potatoes,
I got new cabbages,
I got cauliflower,
I got red beets,
I got onions,
I got lima, beans —
THE WIFE. (who has stolen to the window, fascinated). Any fruit?
I got oranges,
I got pineapples,
I got bananas,
I got —
THE WIFE. Bring me some string beans!
[His head bobs in at the window.
The Wife takes some coins from the sideboard. A paper bag
is flung into the room. The wife catches it and airily tosses
the coins into the street. Presently, she takes a bowl from the
sideboard, sits down, peeps into the bag, dramatically tears it
open, and relapses into a gentle rocking as she strings the beans,
to this invocation.
THE WIFE. String the crooked ones,
string the straight —
love needs a change every meal.
To-morrow, come kidney beans,
Wednesday, come white or black —
limas, return not too soon!
The string bean rules in the
vegetable kingdom,
gives far more calories, sooner digests —
love through with dinner is quicker to play!
Straight ones, crooked ones,
string beans are blessed!
[Enter the husband briskly. In consternation, the wife tries
to hide the bowl, but sets it on the table and hurries to greet
him. He spreads his hands and bows.]

SHE. Good evening, sweet husband!
HE. Good evening, sweet wife!
SHE. You're back, I'm so happy —
HE. So am I — 'twas a day —
SHE. 'Twas a day?
HE. For a hot sweating donkey —
SHE. A donkey?
HE. A mule!
SHE. My poor, dear, poor spouse —
HE. No, no, my good mouse —
SHE. Rest your tired, weary arms —
HE. They're not tired, I'm not weary —
I'd perspire tears and blood drops
just to keep my mouse in cheese.
In a town or in the fields,
on the sea or in a balloon,
with a pickaxe or a fiddle,
with one's back a crooked wish-bone,
occupation, labor, work—
work's a man's best contribution.
SHE. Contribution?
HE. Yes, to Hymen!
SHE. Ah yes—
HE. But you haven't—
SHE. I haven't?
HE. You haven't—
SHE. I haven't?
HE. You have not
SHE. Ah yes, yes indeed!
(The wife embraces the husband and kisses him daintily six times.)
HE. Stop, queer little dear!
Why is a kiss?
SHE. I don't know.
HE. You don't?
SHE. No!
HE. Then why do you do it?
SHE. Love!
HE. Love?
SHE. Yes!
HE. And why is love?
SHE. I don't know.
HE. You don't?
SHE. No!
HE. And why didn't you know?
SHE. Because!
HE. Because?
SHE. Yes!
HE. Come, queer little dear!
(The husband embraces the wife and kisses her daintily six times.)
(solemnly). And now!
SHE. (nervously). And now?
HE. And now!
SHE. And now?
HE. And now I am hungry.
SHE. And now you are hungry?
HE. Of course I am hungry.
SHE. To be sure you are hungry, but —
HE. But?
SHE. But!
HE. But?
[The wife tries to edge between the husband and the table.
He gently elbows her aside. She comes back; he elbows her
less gently. This pantomime is repeated several times; his
elbowing is almost rough at the last. The husband reaches
the table and ogles the bowl. His head twists from the bowl
to the wife, back and forth. An ominous silence
String beans?
SHE. String beans!
HE. String beans?
SHE. String beans!
[A still more ominous silence. The husband's head begins
fairly to bob, only to stop abruptly as he breaks forth
HE. I perspire tears and blood drops
in a town or in the fields,
on the sea or in a balloon,
with my pickaxe or my fiddle,
just to come home
footsore, starving, doubled with appetite
to a meal of — string beans?
Where are my limas?
SHE. We had —
HE. We had?
SHE. Lima beans yesterday — we had them —
HE. We had them?
SHE. Day before yesterday —
HE. What of it?
SHE. Last Friday, last Thursday —
HE. I know it —
SHE. Last Wednesday, last Tuesday —
HE. What then, mam?
SHE. We had them
all the way since we were married —
HE. Two weeks ago this very day —
SHE. I thought you'd have to have a change —
HE. A change —
SHE. I thought you'd like to have a change —
HE. A change?
You thought?
I'd like?
A change?
From the godliest of vegetables,
my kingly bean,
that soft, soothing,
succulent, caressing,
creamy, persuasively serene,
my buttery entity?
You would dethrone it?
You would play renegade?
You'd raise an usurper
in the person of this
elongated, cadaverous,
throat-scratching, greenish
caterpillar —
you'd honor a parochial,
menial pleb,
an accursed legume,
sans even the petty grandeur
of cauliflower,
radish, pea,
onion, asparagus,
potato, tomato —
to the rank of household god?
Is this your marriage?
Is this your creed of love?
Is this your contribution?
Dear, dear,
was there some witch at the altar
who linked your hand with mine in troth
only to have it broken in a bowl?
Ah, dear, dear —
SHE. Dear, dear!
HE. You have listened to a temptress —
SHE. I have listened to my love of you —
HE. You, the pure, the angelic —
SHE. Husband, dear —
HE. Silence!
SHE. Husband!
HE. Silence!
(The wife collapses into her chair. The husband seizes the bowl to this malediction.)
I do not know from whence ye came,
but I know whither ye shall go.
My love,
my troth,
my faith
shall deal with ye.
from this domicile,
in the name of Hymen
(The husband throws the bowl and beans out of the window. The customary crash of broken glass, off-stage, is heard. A smothered sob escapes the wife. The husband strides towards the door. The wife raises her head.)
SHE. Husband!
HE. Traitress!
SHE. Love, sweet husband!
HE. Traitress, traitress!
(The husband glares at the wife, and slams the door behind him. The wife collapses again. Her body rocks to and fro. Silence. Then, still more mysteriously than the first time, the horn and the voice of the huckster. The wife stops rocking, raises her head and gets up. A woe-begone expression vanishes before one of eagerness, of housewifely shrewdness, of joy. She steals to the window.)
I got oranges,
I got pineapples,
I got bananas,
I got —
THE WIFE. Any vegetables?
I got tomatoes,
I got potatoes,
new cabbages,
red beets,
I got string beans,
I got—
THE WIFE. Bring me some lima beans!
THE HUCKSTER. I got onions,
I got—
THE WIFE. Bring me some lima beans!
THE HUCKSTER. Yes, mam! (His head appears again.)
(The performance of paper bag and coins is repeated. Excitedly, the wife takes another bowl from the sideboard. She sits down, tears open the bag, clicks her heels, and hastily, recklessly, begins splitting the limas. One or two pop out and bound along the floor. The wife stops. Pensively:)
THE WIFE. There you go,
hopping away,
just like bad sparrows —
no, no, more like him.
(She smiles a little)
Hopping away,
no, he's not a sparrow,
he's more like a
poor angry boy — and so soon!
(She lets the beans slip through her fingers.)
lima beans, string beans,
kidney beans, white or black —
you're all alike —
though not all alike to him.
(She perks her head.)
It's alike to me.
what's alike to him —
(She looks out of the window.)
though I'm sorry for you,
crooked strings, straight strings,
and so glad for you,
creamy ones, succulent —
what did he say of you?
(She returns to splitting the limas; with crescendo animation.)
Heigho, it's all one to me,
so he loves what I do,
I'll do what he loves.
Angry boy? No, a man
quite young in the practice
of wedlock — and love!
Come, limas, to work now —
we'll serve him, heart, appetite,
whims, crosspatches and all —
though we boil for it later!
The dinner bell calls us,
ding, dong, ding, dell!
[The husband opens the door and pokes in his head. The wife hears him and is silent. He edges into the room and then stops, humble, contrite, abject. Almost in a whisper:]
HE. Wife!
(She does not heed him. He, louder)
Sweet wife!
(She does not answer. He, still louder)
dear, dearest wife!
(She does not answer. He approaches carefully, almost with
reverence, watches her, takes the other chair and cautiously
sets it down next to hers.)

SHE. Yes?
HE. Will you —
I want to —
won't you —
may I sit next to you?
SHE. Yes.
HE. I want to —
will you —
won't you
forgive me — I'll
eat all the beans in the world!
[The wife looks up at the husband roguishly. He drops down
beside her with the evident intention of putting his arm
about her, only to jump up as, inadvertently, he has looked
into the bowl. He rubs his eyes, sits down slowly, looks
again, only to jump up again. The third time he sits down
with extreme caution, like a zoologist who has come upon a
new specimen of insect. The wife seems oblivious of his
emotion. He rises, looks from one side of her, then the
other, warily. At last, rapturously
Lima beans?
(She looks up tenderly and invitingly, indicating his chair.)
SHE. Lima beans!
(He sits down beside her. With greater awe and emphasis.)
HE. Lima beans?
SHE. Lima beans!
(A moment of elfin silence.)
HE. Sweet wife!
SHE. Sweet husband!
HE. Where —
how did it—
how did it happen?
SHE. I don't know.
HE. You do—
you do know—
SHE. I don't!
HE. Tiny miracle,
you do—
you're a woman,
you're a wife,
you're an imp—
you do know!
SHE. Well—
HE. Well?
SHE. Er—
HE. Eh?
SHE. Somebody—
HE. Yes, yes?
SHE. Somebody—
sent them—
HE. Sent them?
SHE. Brought them!
HE. Brought them?
SHE. Yes!
HE. Who?
SHE. Somebody!
HE. Somebody who?
SHE. I can't tell —
HE. You can.
SHE. I — won't tell —
HE. You will —
SHE. I won't —
HE. You will —
SHE. Well!
HE. Well?
SHE. You ought to know!
HE. I ought to?
SHE. You ought to —
HE. But I don't —
SHE. Yes, you do!
HE. I do not —
SHE. You do!
[The husband eyes the wife thoughtfully. She aids him with a gently mischievous smile. He smiles back in understanding.]
HE. I know!
SHE. You do not —
HE. Yes, I do!
SHE. Are you sure?
HE. Sure enough —
SHE. Who was it?
HE. I won't tell —
SHE. You will!
[He points at the audience with warning, goes to the keyhole and listens, draws the window-shade and returns. She nods quickly and puts her head closer to his, her wide-open eyes on the audience. He puts his head to hers, his wide-open eyes on the audience, then turns quickly and whispers something in her ear. She nods with secret, uproarious delight.]
HE. Yes?
SHE. Yes!
[They embrace and click their heels with unrestrained enthusiasm. The wife holds out the bowl to the husband with mock solemnity. He grasps it and together they raise it above their heads, lower it to their knees, and then shell the beans with one accord. They kiss each other daintily six times. The curtain begins to quiver. As before, but accelerando.]
HE. Stop, queer little dear! Why is a kiss?
SHE. I don't know.
HE. You don't?
SHE. No!
HE. Then why do you do it?
SHE. Love!
HE. Love!
SHE. Yes!
HE. And why is —
[They are interrupted. The curtain comes capering down! The last we behold of the happy pair is their frantic signaling for the curtain to wait till they have finished. But curtains cannot see — or understand?]
A poet, playwright, and champion chess player, Alfred Kreymborg became close friends with Alfred Stieglitz and his 291 group, editing The Glebe. As he later encountered Ezra Pound, and developed new friends with Skip Cannell, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens, he begin edition a new magazine, Others. Williams, Marianne Moore, and numerous others began regularly visiting his art colony (Grantwood) in Ridgefield, New Jersey, and Marcel Duchamp came to live there.
Copyright (c) 1916 by Alfred Kreymborg. Reedited by Douglas Messerli for this publication, copyright (c) 2010.