One-Act Plays
Comedies | Dramas | Playwrights | Cast-Size

a play in one-act

by Harold Chapin

The following one-act play is reprinted from The Atlantic Book of Modern Plays. Ed. Sterling Andrus Leonard. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1921. It is now in the public domain and may therefore be performed without royalties.


LIZZIE, his daughter
JOHN BELL, his son-in-law
ALEXANDER, John's little son

[JOHN BELL'S tenement at Butterbiggens. It consists of the very usual "two rooms, kitchen, and bath," a concealed bed in the parlor and another in the kitchen enabling him to house his family--consisting of himself, his wife, his little son, and his aged father-in-law--therein. The kitchen-and-living-room is a good-sized square room. The right wall (our right as we look at it) is occupied by a huge built-in dresser, sink, and coal bunker, the left wall by a high-manteled, ovened, and boilered fireplace, the recess on either side of which contains a low painted cupboard. Over the far cupboard hangs a picture of a ship, but over the near one is a small square window. The far wall has two large doors in it, that on the right leading to the lobby, and that on the left appertaining to the old father-in-law's concealed bed. The walls are distempered a brickish red. The ceiling once was white. The floor is covered with bright linoleum and a couple of rag rugs--one before the fire--a large one--and a smaller one before the door of the concealed bed.]

[A deal table is just to right of centre. A long flexible gas-bracket depends from the ceiling above it. Another many-jointed gas-bracket projects from the middle of the high mantelpiece, its flame turned down towards the stove. There are wooden chairs at the table, above, below, and to left of it. A high-backed easy chair is above the fire, a kitchen elbow-chair below it.]

[The kitchen is very tidy. A newspaper newly fallen to the rug before the fire and another--an evening one--spread flat on the table are (besides a child's mug and plate, also on the table) the only things not stowed in their prescribed places. It is evening--the light beyond the little square window being the gray dimness of a long Northern twilight which slowly deepens during the play. When the curtain rises it is still light enough in the room for a man to read if the print be not too faint and his eyes be good. The warm light of the fire leaps and flickers through the gray, showing up with exceptional clearness the deep-lined face of old DAVID PIRNIE, who is discovered half-risen from his armchair above the fire, standing on the hearth-rug, his body bent and his hand on the chair arm. He is a little, feeble old man with a well-shaped head and weather-beaten face, set off by a grizzled beard and whiskers, wiry and vigorous, in curious contrast to the wreath of snowy hair that encircles his head. His upper lip is shaven. He wears an old suit--the unbuttoned waistcoat of which shows an old flannel shirt. His slippers are low at the heel and his socks loose at the ankles.]

[The old man's eyes are fixed appealingly on those of his daughter, who stands in the half-open door, her grasp on the handle, meeting his look squarely--a straight-browed, black-haired, determined young woman of six or seven and twenty. Her husband, JOHN, seated at the table in his shirt-sleeves with his head in his hands, reads hard at the paper and tries to look unconcerned.]

DAVID: Aw--but, Lizzie--

LIZZIE: (with splendid firmness) It's nae use, feyther. I'm no' gaein' to gie in to the wean. Ye've been tellin' yer stories to him nicht after nicht for dear knows how long, and he's gettin' to expect them.

DAVID: Why should he no' expect them?

LIZZIE: It disna do for weans to count on things so. He's layin' up a sad disappointment for himself yin o' these days.

DAVID: He's gettin' a sad disappointment the noo. Och, come on, Lizzie. I'm no' gaein' to dee just yet, an' ye can break him off gradually when I begin to look like to.

LIZZIE: Who's talkin' o' yer deein', feyther?

DAVID: Ye were speakin' o' the disappointment he was layin' up for himself if he got to count on me--

LIZZIE: I wasna thinkin' o' yer deein', feyther--only--it's no guid for a bairn--

DAVID: Where's the harm in my giein' him a bit story before he gangs tae his bed?

LIZZIE: I'm no sayin' there's ony harm in it this yinst, feyther; but it's no richt to gae on nicht after nicht wi' never a break--

DAVID: Whit wey is it no richt if there's nae harm in it?

LIZZIE: It's giein' in to the wean.

DAVID: Whit wey should ye no' gie in to him if there's nae harm in it?

LIZZIE: (keeping her patience with difficulty) Because it gets him into the habit.

DAVID: But why should he no' get into the habit if there's nae harm in it?

[John at the table chuckles. Lizzie gives him a look, but he meets it not.]

LIZZIE: Really, feyther, ye micht be a wean yerself, ye're that persistent.

DAVID: No, Lizzie, I'm no' persistent, I'm reasoning wi' ye. Ye said there was nae harm in my tellin' him a bit story, an' now ye say I'm not to because it'll get him into the habit; an' what I'm askin' ye is, where's the harm o' his gettin' into the habit if there's nae harm in it?

LIZZIE: Oh, aye; ye can be gey clever, twistin' the words in my mouth, feyther; but richt is richt, an' wrang's wrang, for all yer cleverness.

DAVID: (earnestly) I'm no bein' clever ava, Lizzie,--no' the noo,--I'm just tryin' to make ye see that, if ye admit there's nae harm in a thing, ye canna say there's ony harm in it, an' (pathetically) I'm wantin' to tell wee Alexander a bit story before he gangs to his bed.

JOHN: (aside to her) Och, wumman--

LIZZIE: T'ts, John; ye'd gie in tae onybody if they were just persistent enough.

JOHN: He's an auld man.

LIZZIE: (really exasperated) I ken fine he's an auld man, John, and ye're a young yin, an' Alexander's gaein' to be anither, an' I'm a lone wumman among the lot o' ye, but I'm no' gaein' to gie in to--

JOHN: (bringing a fresh mind to bear upon the argument) Efter a', Lizzie, there's nae harm--

LIZZIE: (almost with a scream of anger) Och, now you've stairted, have you? Harm. Harm. Harm. You're talkin' about harm, and I'm talking about richt an' wrang. You'd see your son grow up a drunken keelie, an' mebbe a thief an' a murderer, so long as you could say there was nae harm in it.

DAVID: (expostulating with some cause) But I cudna say there was nae harm in that, Lizzie, an' I wudna. Only when there's nae harm--

LIZZIE: Och. (Exits, calling off to the cause of the trouble.) Are ye in yer bed yet, Alexander?

[Shuts door with a click.]

DAVID: (standing on hearth-rug and shaking his head more in sorrow than in anger) She's no reasonable, ye ken, John; she disna argue fair. I'm no complaining o' her mither, but it's a wee thing hard that the only twa women I've known to be really chatty an' argumentative with should ha' been just like that. An' me that fond o' women's society.

[He lowers himself into his chair.]

JOHN: They're all like it.

DAVID: (judiciously) I wudna go sae far as to say that, John. Ye see, I've only kent they twa to study carefully--an' it's no fair to judge the whole sex by just the twa examples, an' it were--(Running on) But it's gey hard, an' I was wantin' to tell wee Alexander a special fine story the nicht. (Removes glasses and blinks his eyes.) Aweel.

JOHN: (comforting) Mebbe the morn--

DAVID: If it's no richt the nicht, it'll no be richt the morn's nicht.

JOHN: Ye canna say that, feyther. It wasna wrang last nicht.

DAVID: (bitterly) Mebbe it was, an' Lizzie had no' foun' it out.

JOHN: Aw, noo, feyther, dinna get saurcastic.

DAVID: (between anger and tears, weakly) I canna help it. I'm black affrontit. I was wantin' to tell wee Alexander a special fine story the nicht, an' now here's Lizzie wi' her richt's richt an' wrang's wrang--Och, there's nae reason in the women.

JOHN: We has to gie in to them though.

DAVID: Aye. That's why.

[There is a pause. The old man picks up his paper again and settles his glasses on his nose. JOHN rises, and with a spill from the mantelpiece lights the gas there, which he then bends to throw the light to the old man's advantage.]

DAVID: Thank ye, John. Do ye hear him?

JOHN: (erect on hearth-rug) Who?

DAVID: Wee Alexander.


DAVID: Greetin' his heart out.

JOHN: Och, he's no greetin'. Lizzie's wi' him.

DAVID: I ken fine Lizzie's wi' him, but he's greetin' for a' her. He was wantin' to hear yon story o' the kelpies up to Cross Hill wi' the tram--(Breaking his mood impatiently) Och.

JOHN: (crossing to table and lighting up there) It's gettin' dark gey early. We'll shin be haein' tea by the gas.

DAVID: (rustling his paper) Aye--(Suddenly) There never was a female philosopher, ye ken, John.

JOHN: Was there no'?

DAVID: No. (Angrily, in a gust) An'there never will be! (Then more calmly) An' yet there's an' awful lot o' philosophy about women, John.

JOHN: Aye?

DAVID: Och, aye. They're that unreasonable, an' yet ye canna reason them down; an' they're that weak, an' yet ye canna make them gie in tae ye. Of course, ye'll say ye canna reason doon a stane, or make a clod o' earth gie in tae ye.

JOHN: Will I?

DAVID: Aye. An' ye'll be richt. But then I'll tell ye a stane will na answer ye back, an' a clod of earth will na try to withstand ye, so how can ye argue them down?

JOHN: (convinced) Ye canna.

DAVID. Richt! Ye canna! But a wumman will answer ye back, an' she will stand against ye, an' yet ye canna argue her down though ye have strength an' reason on your side an' she's talkin' naething but blether about richt's richt an' wrang's wrang, an' sendin' a poor bairn off t' his bed i' the yin room an' leavin' her auld feyther all alone by the fire in anither an'--ye ken--Philosophy--

[He ceases to speak and wipes his glasses again. JOHN, intensely troubled, tiptoes up to the door and opens it a foot. The wails of ALEXANDER can be heard muffled by a farther door. JOHN calls off.]

JOHN: Lizzie.

[Lizzie immediately comes into sight outside the door with a "Shsh."]

JOHN: Yer feyther's greetin'.

LIZZIE: (with a touch of exasperation) Och, I'm no heedin'! There's another wean in there greetin' too, an' I'm no heedin' him neither, an' he's greetin' twicet as loud as the auld yin.

JOHN: (shocked) Ye're heartless, wumman.

LIZZIE: (with patience) No, I'm no' heartless, John; but there's too much heart in this family, an' someone's got to use their heid.

[DAVID cranes round the side of his chair to catch what they are saying. She stops and comes to him kindly but with womanly firmness.]

LIZZIE: I'm vexed ye should be disappointed, feyther, but ye see, don't ye--

[A singularly piercing wail from ALEXANDER goes up. LIZZIE rushes to silence him.]

LIZZIE: Mercy! The neighbors will think we're murderin' him.

[The door closes behind her.]

DAVID: (nodding for a space as he revolves the woman's attitude) Ye hear that, John?

JOHN: Whit?

DAVID: (with quiet irony) She's vexed I should be disappointed. The wumman thinks she's richt! Women always think they're richt--mebbe it's that that makes them that obstinate. (With the ghost of a twinkle) She's feart o' the neighbors, though.

JOHN: (stolidly) A' women are feart o' the neighbors.

DAVID: (reverting) Puir wee man. I telt ye he was greetin', John. He's disappointed fine. (Pondering) D' ye ken whit I'm thinkin', John?

JOHN: Whit?

DAVID: I'm thinkin' he's too young to get his ain way, an' I'm too auld, an' it's a fine thocht!

JOHN: Aye?

DAVID: Aye. I never thocht of it before, but that's what it is. He's no' come to it yet, an' I'm past it. (Suddenly) What's the most important thing in life, John?

[JOHN opens his mouth--and shuts it again unused.]

DAVID: Ye ken perfectly well. What is it ye're wantin' a' the time?

JOHN: Different things.

DAVID: (satisfied) Aye--different things! But ye want them a', do ye no'?

JOHN: Aye.

DAVID: If ye had yer ain way ye'd hae them a', eh?

JOHN: I wud that.

DAVID: (triumphant) Then is that no' what ye want: yer ain way?

JOHN: (enlightened) Losh!

DAVID: (warming to it) That's what life is, John--gettin' yer ain way. First ye're born, an' ye canna dae anything but cry; but God's given yer mither ears an' ye get yer way by just cryin' for it. (Hastily, anticipating criticism) I ken that's no exactly in keeping with what I've been saying aboot Alexander--but a new-born bairnie's an awfu' delicate thing, an' the Lord gets it past its infancy by a dispensation of Providence very unsettling to oor poor human understandings. Ye'll notice the weans cease gettin' their wey by juist greetin' for it as shin as they're old enough to seek it otherwise.

JOHN: The habit hangs on to them whiles.

DAVID: It does that. (With a twinkle) An' mebbe, if God's gi'en yer neighbors ears an' ye live close, ye'll get yer wey by a dispensation o' Providence a while longer. But there's things ye'll hae to do for yerself gin ye want to--an' ye will. Ye'll want to hold oot yer hand, an' ye will hold oot yer hand; an' ye 'll want to stand up and walk, and ye will stand up and walk; an' ye'll want to dae as ye please, and ye will dae as ye please; and then ye are practised an' lernt in the art of gettin' yer ain way--and ye're a man!

JOHN: Man, feyther--ye're wonderful!

DAVID: (complacently) I'm a philosopher, John. But it goes on mebbe.

JOHN: Aye?

David: Aye: mebbe ye think ye'd like to make ither folk mind ye an' yer way, an' ye try, an' if it comes off ye're a big man an' mebbe the master o' a vessel wi' three men an' a boy under ye, as I was, John. (Dropping into the minor) An then ye come doon the hill.

JOHN: (apprehensively) Doon the hill?

DAVID: Aye--doon to mebbe wantin' to tell a wean a bit story before he gangs tae his bed, an' ye canna dae even that. An' then a while more an' ye want to get to yer feet an' walk, and ye canna; an' a while more an' ye want to lift up yer hand, an' ye canna--an' in a while more ye're just forgotten an' done wi'.

JOHN: Aw, feyther!

DAVID: Dinna look sae troubled, John. I'm no' afraid to dee when my time comes. It's these hints that I'm done wi' before I'm dead that I dinna like.

JOHN: What'n hints?

DAVID: Well--Lizzie an' her richt's richt and wrang's wrang when I think o' tellin' wee Alexander a bit story before he gangs tae his bed.

JOHN: (gently) Ye are a wee thing persistent, feyther.

DAVID: No, I'm no' persistent, John. I've gied in. I'm a philosopher, John, an' a philosopher kens when he's done wi'.

JOHN: Aw, feyther!

DAVID: (getting lower and lower) It's gey interesting, philosophy, John, an' the only philosophy worth thinkin' about is the philosophy of growing old--because that's what we're a' doing, a' living things. There's nae philosophy in a stane, John; he's juist a stane, an' in a hundred years he'll be juist a stane still--unless he's broken up, an' then he'll be juist not a stane, but he'll no' ken what's happened to him, because he didna break up gradual and first lose his boat an' then his hoose, an' then hae his wee grandson taken away when he was for tellin' him a bit story before he gangs tae his bed.--It's yon losing yer grip bit by bit and kennin' that yer losin' it that makes a philosopher, John.

JOHN: If I kennt what ye meant by philosophy, feyther, I'd be better able to follow ye.

[LIZZIE enters quietly and closes door after her.]

JOHN: Is he asleep?

LIZZIE: No, he's no' asleep, but I've shut both doors, and the neighbors canna hear him.

JOHN: Aw, Lizzie--

LIZZIE: (sharply) John--

DAVID: Whit was I tellin' ye, John, about weans gettin' their ain way if the neighbors had ears an' they lived close? Was I no' richt?

LIZZIE: (answering for JOHN with some acerbity) Aye, ye were richt, feyther, nae doot; but we dinna live that close here, an' the neighbors canna hear him at the back o' the hoose.

DAVID: Mebbe that's why ye changed Alexander into the parlor an' gied me the bed in here when it began to get cold---

LIZZIE: (hurt) Aw, no, feyther; I brought ye in here to be warmer--

DAVID: (placably) I believe ye, wumman--(with a faint twinkle)--but it's turned oot luckily, has it no'?

[DAVID waits for a reply but gets none. LIZZIE fetches needlework from the dresser drawer and sits above table. DAVID'S face and voice take on a more thoughtful tone.]

DAVID: (musing) Puir wee man! If he was in here you'd no' be letting him greet his heart oot where onybody could hear him. Wud ye?

LIZZIE: (calmly) Mebbe I'd no'.

JOHN: Ye ken fine ye'd no', wumman.

LIZZIE: John, thread my needle an' dinna take feyther's part against me.

JOHN: (surprised) I'm no'.

LIZZIE: No, I ken ye're no meanin' to, but you men are that thrang--

[She is interrupted by a loud squall from DAVID, which he maintains, eyes shut, chair-arms gripped, and mouth open, for nearly half a minute, before he cuts it off abruptly and looks at the startled couple at the table.]

LIZZIE: Mercy, feyther, whit's wrang wi' ye?

DAVID: (collectedly) There's naethin' wrang wi' me, Lizzie, except that I'm wantin' to tell wee Alexander a bit story--

LIZZIE: (firmly but very kindly) But ye're no' goin' to--

[She breaks off in alarm as her father opens his mouth preparatory to another yell, which however he postpones to speak to JOHN.]

DAVID: Ye mind whit I was saying aboot the dispensation o' Providence to help weans till they could try for theirselves, John?

JOHN: Aye.

DAVID: Did it no' occur to ye then that there ought to be some sort of dispensation to look after the auld yins who were past it?


DAVID: Aweel--it didna occur to me at the time--(and he lets off another prolonged wail.)

LIZZIE: (going to him) Shsh! Feyther! The neighbors will hear ye!!!

DAVID: (desisting as before) I ken fine; I'm no' at the back of the hoose. (Shorter wail.)

LIZZIE: (almost in tears) They'll be coming to ask.

DAVID: Let them. They'll no'ask me. (Squall.)

LIZZIE: Feyther--ye're no'behaving well. John--

JOHN: Aye?

LIZZIE: (helplessly) Naething--feyther, stop it. They'll think ye're clean daft.

DAVID: (ceasing to howl and speaking with gravity) I ken it fine, Lizzie; an' it's no easy for a man who has been respeckit an' lookit up to a' his life to be thought daft at eighty-three; but the most important thing in life is to get yer ain way. (Resumes wailing.)

LIZZIE: (puzzled, to JOHN) Whit's that?

JOHN: It's his philosophy that he was talking aboot.

DAVID: (firmly) An' I'm gaein' to tell wee Alexander yon bit story, tho' they think me daft for it.

LIZZIE: But it's no' for his ain guid, feyther. I've telt ye so, but ye wudna listen.

DAVID: I wudna listen, wumman! It was you wudna listen to me when I axed ye whit harm--(Chuckles.--Checking himself) No! I'm no gaein' to hae that ower again. I've gied up arguing wi' women. I'm juist gaein' tae greet loud an' sair till wee Alexander's brought in here to hae his bit story; an' if the neighbors--(Loud squall.)

LIZZIE: (aside to JOHN) He's fair daft!

JOHN: (aghast) Ye'd no send him to--

LIZZIE: (reproachfully) John!

[A louder squall from the old man.]

LIZZIE: (beating her hands together distractedly) He'll be --We'll--He'll--Och!!! (Resigned and beaten) John, go and bring wee Alexander in here.

[JOHN is off like a shot. The opening of the door of the other room can be told by the burst of ALEXANDER'S voice. The old man's wails have stopped the second his daughter capitulated. JOHN returns with ALEXANDER and bears him to his grandfather's waiting knee. The boy's tears and howls have ceased and he is smiling triumphantly. He is of course in his night-shirt and a blanket, which Grandpa wraps round him, turning toward the fire.]

LIZZIE: (looking on with many nods of the head and smacks of the lips) There you are! That's the kind o' boy he is. Greet his heart oot for a thing an' stop the moment he gets it.

DAVID: Dae ye expect him to gae on after he's got it? Ah, but, Alexander, ye didna get it yer lane this time; it took the twa o' us. An' hard work it was for the Auld Yin! Man! (Playing hoarse) I doot I've enough voice left for a--(Bursting out very loud and making the boy laugh) Aweel! Whit's it gaein' to be--eh?


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