by Djuna Barnes
first published in Little Review, VI (November 1919)
Three from the Earth was first presented at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York, October 31, 1919, with the following cast:
JOHN CARSON Ward Roege
JAMES CARSON James Light
HENRY CARSON Cesare Zwaska
KATE MORLEY Ida Rauh
Setting by James Light.
JAMES, HENRY and JOHN, CARSON brothers
KATE MORLEY, an adventuress, a lady of leisure
KATE MORLEYS boudoir. A long narrow room, with a great many lacquer screens in various shades of blue, a tastefully decorated room though rather extreme.
At the rise of the curtain the three Carson brothers are discovered sitting together on a couch to the left. They look like peasants of the most obvious type. They are tall, rather heavy and range in age from nine teen to twenty-five. They have sandy, sun-bleached hair that insists upon sticking straight up—oily, sweaty skins—large hanging lips and small eyes on which a faint whitish down moves for lashes. They are clumsy and ill clothed. Russet shoes are on all six feet. They each wear a purple aster and each has on a tie of the super-stunning variety—they have evidently done their best to be as one might say "well dressed."
When they speak—aside from their grunts—their voices are rough, nasal and occasionally crack. They are stoop-shouldered and their hands are excessively ugly.
Yet in spite of all this, their eyes are intelligent, their smiles gentle, melancholy, compassionate. And though they have a look of formidable grossness and stupidity, there is, on second observation, a something beneath all this in no way in keeping with this first impression.
JOHN, the youngest, and the smallest, looks around the room carefully.
JOHN: A nice room, eh? [He tries to whisper, but it comes forth buzzing and harsh.] JAMES: A woman's room.
JAMES: A narrow room, John.
JAMES: Cats and narrow walls.
HENRY: [grunting] Ugh.
JOHN: Hush—I hear her coming! [The curtains part and KATE MORLEY enters. She is a woman of about forty. Handsome. Dark. She is beautifully dressed—in a rather seductive fashion. She has a very interesting head; she has an air of one used to adulation and the pleasure of exerting her will. She has a trick of narrowing her eyes. As she comes forward there is a general commotion among the brothers, but none manages to stand up.]
KATE: Good day, gentlemen.
ALL THREE: Good day.
KATE: Nice of you to call on me. [She seats herself, crossing her legs.] You are the three Carsons, John, James and Henry, aren't you? I haven't seen you for years, yet I think I should have known you.
ALL THREE: Ah ha.
KATE: Yes, I presume I should have known you. I have a good memory. Well, as I said, it's nice of you to come to see me. Social?
HENRY: You might call it that.
KATE: Its quite nice to get an unexpected visitor or so. I'm the kind of woman who knows just who is going to call on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday—
ALL THREE: Ah ha.
KATE: How's the country?
JOHN: Just the same.
KATE: It always is. Don't you go mad—watching it?
HENRY: Now and again.
KATE: And how's your father? [not pausing for an answer—almost to herself] I remember—he was always mad. He used to wear a green cloth suit, and he carried white rats all over his shoulders, [remembering the three] Ah, yes, your father—he was a barber, wasn't he?
HENRY: No, a chemist.
KATE: [laughing uneasily] I have a bad memory after all. Well, anyway, in those days he had begun to be queer—every one noticed it—even that funny man who had those three flaxen-haired daughters with the thin ankles who lives at the end of the street—And your mother—a prostitute, I believe.
HENRY: [calmly] At times.
KATE: A dancing girl without a clean word in her vocabulary, or a whole shirt to her name
JAMES: But a woman with fancies.
KATE: [sarcastically] And what ability?
HENRY: Oh, none, just a burning desire.
KATE: What's the use of going into that? How did you get here—what for?
ALL THREE: On bicycles.
KATE: [bursting into laughter] How exactly ridiculous and appropriate—and what else?
JOHN: To see how the sun falls in a place like this.
KATE: [angrily, rising] Well, you see, from left to right, and right to left—
JOHN: [quietly] And we wanted to see how you walked, and sat down, and crossed your legs—
HENRY: And to get fathers letters.
KATE: Well, you see how I walk, sit down, cross my legs. What letters?
JAMES: Letters to you.
KATE: [uneasily] So you know about that—well, and what would you fellows do with them—read them to see how clever they are?
JAMES: No, we have the clever ones.
HENRY: [nodding] Exactly
JOHN: You suffer?
KATE: From time to time—there's always a reaction.
HENRY: That's vulgar, isn't it?
KATE: Not unusually.
JOHN: The letters?
KATE: [to herself] Well, there is malice in me—what of it? We've all been a while with the dogs, we don't all learn to bark.
JOHN: Ah ha.
KATE: See here, what will you do with your father's letters?
HENRY: Destroy them, perhaps.
KATE: And if I give them to you—will your father be as generous with mine?
HENRY: Father is undoubtedly a gentleman—even at this moment.
KATE: Well, we shall see about that—first tell me how you live.
JOHN: We go down on the earth and find things, tear them up, shaking the dirt off. [making motions to illustrate] Then there are the cows to be milked, the horses—a few—to be fed, shod and curried—do you wish me to continue?
KATE: Yes, yes, go on.
HENRY: [taking the tale up] We get up at dawn, and our father turns over in bed and whispers: "If you meet any one, say nothing; if you are asked a question, look stupid—"
KATE: I believe you.
JAMES: And he says: "Go about your work as if you had neither sight, speech nor hearing—
JOHN: And he adds: "If you should meet a woman in the road—"
KATE: [excited] Then what?
HENRY: That's enough. Then of a Sunday we watch the people going to church, when we hear the "Amen," we lift a little and sit back—and then again—
HENRY: Enough for our simple needs.
KATE: Poor sheep!
JAMES: Wise sheep!
KATE: What! Well perhaps. No one is any longer sure of anything. Then what?
JOHN: When we come home he says: "What have you seen and heard today?" He never asks, "What have you said?"
KATE: He trusts you?
JOHN: Undoubtedly. Sometimes we say, "We saw a hawk flying," or, "A badger passed," and sometimes we bring him the best treat of all—
JOHN: Something dead.
HENRY: Anything that has destroyed the crops—a mole—a field-mouse.
KATE: And never anything that's harmless?
KATE: Well, see here. I'll give you those letters. Suddenly my heart says to me, "Kate, give the oxen the rope, they won't run away."—Isn't it so? Very well, I put my hand on a certain package and all is over—I'm about to be married, you know. [She has risen and gone over to a little box standing on the desk. Out from this she takes a package of letters tied with a red ribbon. She turns and walks straight up to JOHN.] I'll give them to you. You are the youngest, the gentlest, and you have the nicest hands. [She sits down, breathing with difficulty.]
JOHN: [putting them into his blouse] Thank you, Kate Morley.
KATE: Now, tell me about everything. How is that mother of yours? I remember her—she was on the stage—she danced as they say, and she sang. She had a pet monkey—fed it honey out of a jar kept full by her admirers: grooms, stage hands, what not—
HENRY: Yes, and she used to draw pictures of it in the style of Dürer—almost morbid—and later it caught a disease and died—
KATE: I don't doubt it—and she, she had an under-lip like a balloon—and your father kissed that mouth, was even tempted—
JAMES: My father often saw beyond the flesh.
KATE: Kissed such a creature!
HENRY: At such times she was beautiful.
KATE: [with a touch of humility] Yes, I'm sorry—I remember. Once I passed her, and instead of saying something, something horrible—she might—she looked down.
JOHN: She was beautiful, looking down.
KATE: [angry] And I, I suppose I wasn't beautiful to look at—
HENRY: No, I suppose not, that is, not for her.
KATE: [viciously] Well, let me tell you, you haven't inherited her beauty. Look at your hands—thick, hard, ugly—and the life lines in them like the life lines in the hands of every laborer digging sewers—
JOHN: There's something in that, but they are just beginning.
KATE: [turning on them] Look at you! You're ugly, and clumsy, and uncouth. You grunt and roar, you wear abominable clothes—and you have no manners—and all because of your father, your mighty righteous and original father. You don't have to be like this. You needn't have little pigs' eyes with bleached lashes, and thick hanging lips—and noses—but I suppose you've got adenoids, and you may suffer from the fact that your mother had a rupture, and in all probability you have the beginning of ulcers of the stomach, for God knows your father couldn't keep a meal down like a gentleman!
HENRY: He was delicate.
KATE: And why was he delicate? He called himself "The little Father," as one might say, "The great Emperor." Well, to have a father to whom you can go and say, "All is not as it should be"—that would have been everything. But what could you say to him, and what had he to say to you? Oh, we all have our pathetic moments of being at our best, but he wasn't satisfied with that, he wanted to be at it all the time. And the result, the life of a mole. "Listen and say nothing." Then he becomes the gentleman farmer because he discovers he cannot be the Beloved Fool. Suddenly he is the father of three creatures for all the world like Russian peasants—without an idea, a subtlety—its wicked, that's all, wicked—and as for that, how do you know but that all three of you had a different mother? Why, great God, I might be the mother of one of you!
JOHN: [significantly] So I believe, madam.
KATE: [unheeding] Do you think a man like your father had any right to bring such children as you into the world—three columns of flesh without one of the five senses! [She suddenly buries her head in her hands.]
JOHN: [gently] You loved our father.
HENRY: And you also had your pot of honey—
KATE: Thank God I had no ideals—I had a religion.
JOHN: Just what?
KATE: You wouldn't understand.
HENRY: Shoes to the needy?
KATE: No, I'm not that kind, vicious boy.
JOHN: Are you quite certain?
KATE: I'll admit all my candles are not burning for God. Well, then, blow them out, still I'll have a light burning somewhere, for all your great breaths, you oxen!
HENRY: You were never a tower builded of ivory—
KATE: You're too stupid to be bitter—your voices are too undeveloped—you'd say "love" and "hate" the same way.
JAMES: True, we have been shut away from intonations.
KATE: You wouldn't even wish to die.
JOHN: We shall learn.
KATE: Why bother?
JOHN: [abruptly rising] You have posed for the madonna?
KATE: Every woman has.
JOHN: You have done it better than most.
KATE: What do you mean?
JOHN: I looked at it when I came in. [He picks up the photograph.]
KATE: Let it be—I was playing in the "Crown of Thorns," an amateur theatrical.
JOHN: Yes, I presumed it was amateur—
JAMES: You were a devoted mother?
KATE: I have no virtues.
HENRY: And vices?
KATE: Weak in one, weak in the other.
JOHN: However, the baby had nice hands—
KATE: [looking at him] That is true.
JAMES: But then babies only use their hands to lift the breast, and occasionally to stroke the cheek—
KATE: Or throw them up in despair—not a heavy career.
JOHN: And then?
KATE: [in an entirely new tone] Won't you have tea?—But no, pay no attention to me, that's another of my nasty malicious tricks. Curse life!
HENRY: Your life is drawing to a close.
JAMES: And from time to time you place your finger on a line of Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, wondering: "How did he say it all in two lines?" Eh?
KATE: As you say. [She looks at them slowly, one by one.] You are strange things, [coming back] But at least I've given up something—look at your mother, what did she give up for your father—a drunken husband—
JAMES: A drunken lover—that's different.
KATE: I can't help thinking of that great gross stomach of hers.
JAMES: Gross indeed, it won't trouble him any more.
KATE: What's that?
JOHN: He cut his throat with a knife—
KATE: Oh, my God! [pause] How did he look?
JOHN: You can't satisfy your aesthetic sense that way-he looked—well, ugly, played out; yes, played out. Everything had been too much for him—you—us—you could see that in the way he— KATE: [in a whisper] Well, that's strange—everything seems—I knew him, you know. [She begins to laugh.] And the dogs barked?
JAMES: So I believe.
KATE: [dazed] And you, what are you three going to do?
HENRY: We are coming out of the country—we are going abroad—we can listen there.
KATE: Abroad—listen—what are you saying?
HENRY: There are great men abroad.
JAMES: Anatole France, De Gourmont—
KATE: De Gourmont is dead.
JOHN: There will be others.
KATE: [still dully] And how did you come to know such names—oh, your father, of course—
JOHN: We needed them.
KATE: Strange, I've been prepared for every hour but this—
JAMES: Yet I dare say you've never cried out.
KATE: You are mistaken. I've cried: "To the evil of mind all is evil—"
HENRY: Ah ha, and what happened?
KATE: Sometimes I found myself on my knees—
JAMES: And sometimes?
KATE: That's enough, haven't we about cleared all the shavings out of the carpenter shop?
HENRY: You at least will never kill yourself.
KATE: Not likely, I'll probably die in bed with my slippers on—you see, I have a pretty foot.
HENRY: We understand—you are about to be married.
KATE: To a supreme court judge—so I'm cleaning house.
JOHN: [standing with the photograph] But it won't be quite cleared out until this goes. [He takes it out of the frame and turning it over reads.] "Little John, God bless him." [He turns it back.] God bless him. Well, just for that I'd like to keep it.
KATE: That's my affair.
JOHN: Sol see. [He puts the photo in his blouse with the letters.]
KATE: Well, perhaps—well, you're not so stupid after all—Come, for the madonna give me back the letters—I'll burn them, I swear, and you can put the madonna at the foot of the bed.
JOHN: I shan't put it at the foot of the bed—I don't look at the foot of the bed—
HENRY and JAMES: [rising] And now we shall go.
KATE: [her hands to her head] But, gentlemen, gentlemen—
HENRY: We won't need to bother you again. We are leaving the country and going elsewhere—and there was only one of us to whom you might have shown a little generosity—in other words we do not wish to be reminded, and now we can forget, and in time become quite hilarious—
KATE: But, gentlemen, gentlemen, not this way—
JOHN: Well? [Quite suddenly he takes her in his arms, raises her face and kisses her on the mouth.]
KATE: [crying out] Not that way! Not that way!
JAMES: That's the way you bore him!
[The curtain drops behind them.]
Copyright (c) 1995 by Sun & Moon Press. Reprinted from At the Roots of the Stars: The Short Plays of Djuna Barnes (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995).