One-Act Plays
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a comedy in one-act

by Philip Moeller

The following one-act play is reprinted from Five Somewhat Historical Plays. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1918. It is now in the public domain and may therefore be performed without royalties.


MASTER HAMLET, the keeper of the inn
SIR FRANCIS B., a literary man from London
SIR WILLIAM S., a literary man from London

[The Commercial room in the Roadhouse in Arden. It is seven o'clock of a keen spring morning. Through the tall mullioned window, half of which is flung open, one sees the edge of the forest and beyond, the yellow-gree glimmer of the meadow lands. There is the main door centre and smaller doors right and left. In the left wall is a huge, deep-seated fire-place and in back, a cupboard. In the centre is the long table d'hote of the inn at the end of which sits ROBIN HAMLET, a youth of 18, eating eggs. MASTER HAMLET, his father, enters with a feather duster in his hand. He goes over to a peg in the wall and takes down a waiter's apron which he puts on over his traditional costume of black.]

ROBIN: At it again, Papa? and so early. You scatter dust better than any man who ever lived.

HAMLET: I have been listening to the crack of the egg-shells and that's the tenth unless I'm mistaken.

ROBIN: You've always found it difficult to have a definite opinion about anything, haven't you?

HAMLET: Is that the way for a child to speak to his parent? I had much more respect for my father.

[He looks at his father's picture which is hanging from his neck.]

ROBIN: And see what it cost you.

HAMLET: (Deeply chagrined) You're your mother's son, all right.

ROBIN: That establishes half my parentage, but why question the rest? You are insulting your own honour. It is just like you though to give yourself all sorts of imaginary troubles.

HAMLET: Have you forgotten the fifth commandment?

ROBIN: Fools make commandments for the wise to forget.

HAMLET: I tremble for your future.

ROBIN: You've always been a splendid trembler, papa.

HAMLET: (Coming over to him) You might have left a little breakfast for me and your mother, Just think--

ROBIN: I don't believe in thought. Too much thinking--

HAMLET: So! You have been discussing my past with your mother.

ROBIN: Can't you ever forget your family troubles?

HAMLET: But my memories--

ROBIN: Are nothing but the lash with which yesterday flogs tomorrow.

HAMLET: (Tearfully) And today--

ROBIN: (Jumping up and vaulting across the table) Today, May is mad with the kiss of April and the lust of summer stirs the spring.

HAMLET: (Nervously) You know I don't like these lyric outbursts. Save all that sort of thing for your mother.

[ROBIN laughs, leaps up and sits squat-legged on the table.]

HAMLET: Sit still for a moment and let's face the facts.

ROBIN: All right, papa. Don't you think I am old enough for love?

HAMLET: (Turning pale) There are some subjects no self-respecting parent ever discusses with his child. How did you learn such things in the forest here where we never see a newspaper?

ROBIN: There are certain barn-yard facts.

HAMLET: (Deeply shocked) So, my innocent boy has learned life from watching the immodesty of nature.

ROBIN: Control yourself, papa, a nervous parent isn't good for a child. (He breaks another egg.)

HAMLET: You've done it! That's the last egg!

ROBIN: Well get some more.

HAMLET: More? There isn't a shilling in the house. We haven't had a customer for months and our credit has lost its reputation.

ROBIN: Something's sure to happen. Life can't stand still. Somebody will be passing through the forest.

HAMLET: (Solemnly) And in the meantime?

ROBIN: (Leaping from the table) Let's be true optimists. We'll forget all about breakfast and look forward to lunch.

[MISTRESS HAMLET enters, carrying a miniature obelisk.]

MISTRESS HAMLET: Good morning, Robin. I hope your father hasn't been annoying you.

ROBIN: Good morning, mater. You're late.

MISTRESS HAMLET: I simply couldn't get out of bed. It was so cosy under the quilts while your clammy father was shaving. Besides I just had to finish those French novels. (Then to HAMLET) Well, Ham, why aren't you cleaning up?

HAMLET: (Timidly) There are still last night's dishes if--you--

MISTRESS HAMLET: I, mess with those dishes? Not all the perfumes of Arabia could wash away the odour.

HAMLET: But why can't you or Robin help me?

MISTRESS HAMLET: (Superbly) Ham! I am trying very hard to be pleasant. Remember my infinite variety, even a queen will turn.

[And she does so, assuming an Egyptian pose.]

HAMLET: Yes, but there's Robin.

MISTRESS HAMLET: (Rapturously clasping ROBIN to her breast) My poor fragility! Yes, I suppose you would like this delicate lad to bear your fardles for you. You pitiless parent, can't you see the boy's half starved?

HAMLET: (Timidly) Really, my dear.

MISTRESS HAMLET: (Angrily) Ham! (HAMLET begins to dust.) That's right. Dusting is the perfect symbol of your futility. And when you get through come over here and polish up the heir-loom.

[She points to the obelisk which she puts on the table.]

ROBIN: What is it anyway?

MISTRESS HAMLET: What difference does that make? Where is your pride of blood? Hasn't it come down for generations?

ROBIN: But what's the good of it?

MISTRESS HAMLET: (Towering in indignant majesty) What's the good of it? I can't breathe in such a Philistine atmosphere. To you and your father, I suppose, nothing is good unless it's useful. Thank God, I'm a woman. Too much practicality chokes me and always has. I'd as lief die this minute. (Then tragically) I have immortal longings in me. Give me some breakfast.

[HAMLET looks at ROBIN in consternation for ROBIN has eaten everything, but the situation is saved, for at this moment a snatch of song is heard in the forest and simultaneously they each omit the same word.]


[And in the next moment the girl, IMMORTALITY, bounds into the room.]

IMMORTALITY: May I rest here a moment?

MISTRESS HAMLET: We'll do our best to make you comfortable.

IMMORTALITY: I seldom stray where I'm wanted.

ROBIN: Have you come far?

IMMORTALITY: Yes, I have been racing with the years.

ROBIN: We weren't expecting you.

IMMORTALITY: Then I'll stay. Is any one else at the inn?

HAMLET: We haven't had a soul for months.


IMMORTALITY: At last I have eluded them.

HAMLET: I hope you are not referring to your parents.

IMMORTALITY: I never had any parents. The stars were my cradle, the life of man my jumping-jack, and Time my nurse.

HAMLET: Am I to understand?

ROBIN: Don't try to, papa. You've never understood anything.

IMMORTALITY: I was found on the steps of a foundling hospital with a strange little note in my hand.

ROBIN: What did it say?

HAMLET: Robin, perhaps the young lady would rather not.

IMMORTALITY: Oh, I don't mind. Eventually I tell everything. These were the words: "Your mother is fame and your father is tomorrow."

ROBIN: (Laughing) I've been waiting for you. Let's be friends.

MISTRESS HAMLET: (Eying her up and down) She has probably escaped from a sanitarium.

HAMLET: She seems quite sane to me.

MISTRESS HAMLET: You are no judge. (Then to IMMORTALITY) What are you doing here, an unprotected girl, alone in the Forest of Arden?

IMMORTALITY: I'm running away.

MISTRESS HAMLET: (Deeply) Young lady, I come from a long line of emotional ancestors and I understand many things. From whom and from what are you running away?


MISTRESS HAMLET: I thought as much.

IMMORTALITY: Just at this moment, to be more specific, I am attempting to elude two gentlemen who pursue me everywhere.

ROBIN: I'll teach them, the fools.

IMMORTALITY: I don't take them seriously.

ROBIN: Why not?

IMMORTALITY: They are literary men.

HAMLET: Don't speak slightingly of literature. To be or not to be--

MISTRESS HAMLET: (Terribly) Ham, don't finish that. (Then to IMMORTALITY) Well, go on with your story.

IMMORTALITY: I don't want to interrupt your husband's soliloquy.

MISTRESS HAMLET: The only excuse for a soliloquy is its interruption.

HAMLET: (Timidly) Cleo, I wish you would let me finish.

MISTRESS HAMLET: Hamlet, I don't want you to say another word. Go over there and sit in the corner. (And HAMLET does so.) Well Miss, what about these two gentlemen?

IMMORTALITY: If I mentioned their names you might know them.

MISTRESS HAMLET: Very probably. Who are they?

ROBIN: Gossip!

MISTRESS HAMLET: Be quiet, Robin.

IMMORTALITY: Please don't ask him to be quiet. He seems to have a charming sense of humour.

HAMLET: (At a loss) What's that?

ROBIN: Something that might have saved you, daddy.

MISTRESS HAMLET: Well, what about these two gentlemen?

IMMORTALITY: Their ridiculous attention embarrasses me. I escape from one only to encounter the other. There was no place in town where I could hide from them. I thought I was safe at my club. It's called the Sunnyside of Olympus Club. But I wasn't. One of them, the philosopher, found me out and appeared there the next day disguised as the head-waiter. I had to resign, of course.

MISTRESS HAMLET: I, too, have had illuminating experiences with men--the brutes. (And she glares at HAMLET.)

ROBIN: Don't start that, mother. Like all emotional women, you've saved for the future what you've squandered in the past.

MISTRESS HAMLET: Hold your tongue or as old as you are, I'll box your ears. (And then to IMMORTALITY) Go on, dear, tell me everything.

IMMORTALITY: There isn't much more to tell. After I left my Club I joined a troupe of players passing through London. I seemed really to have got away but the following week the poet arrived and joined the company as chief clown.

ROBIN: For a brief moment discarding his disguise.

HAMLET: (Traditionally) All the world's a stage--

ROBIN: And life's its seamstress, changing the sackcloth of yesterday into the motley of tomorrow.

MISTRESS HAMLET: (With growing agitation) No one asked either of you to recite.

IMMORTALITY: I am beginning to like your son.

ROBIN: I knew you would. I liked you from the beginning.

MISTRESS HAMLET: (With maternal protection) Aren't two men enough? (And then sweetly) Finish your story.

IMMORTALITY: Back in London I sent a charming obituary of myself to the papers.

MISTRESS HAMLET: Am I to understand that you are dead?

IMMORTALITY: No, I am alive forever.

MISTRESS HAMLET: So you're a ghost!

HAMLET: (Dropping his duster and all atremble hiding behind MISTRESS HAMLET) Don't say that, I couldn't survive another.

IMMORTALITY: My funeral was only a subterfuge.

ROBIN: I don't believe in funerals and baked meats.

IMMORTALITY: You would have liked mine. I had the most distinguished pall-bearers.


IMMORTALITY: Adam and Guinivere and the Queen of Sheba and Harold the Saxon.

HAMLET: (Aside, to MISTRESS HAMLET) She seems to know a lot of nice people.

MISTRESS HAMLET: We'll charge her twice as much as usual.

IMMORTALITY: And now all the world believes me dead, but here I am in Arden, free at last and rid forever of all stupid suitors. Oh, I'm so happy!

ROBIN: (Gaily) And so am I!

HAMLET: (Very lugubriously) To be conscious of happiness is to hear Nemesis rapping at the portals.

IMMORTALITY: Nevertheless I'm happy.

[But at this moment there is a knock at the door. HAMLET and MISTRESS HAMLET again emit the same hopeful sound: "A customer." IMMORTALITY in dumb show suggests that ROBIN see who it is. He goes to the window and then tip-toes back to her.]

ROBIN: It's a man with a big book.

IMMORTALITY: (In despair) It's Francis.

ROBIN: Let me manage him.

[And he shoves HAMLET and MISTRESS HAMLET from the room through the door right and hides IMMORTALITY in the room on the left. The knock is repeated.]

ROBIN: Come in.

[And FRANCIS BACON, an unmistakable philosopher, enters carrying a huge book under his arm.]

FRANCIS: Sst! Is there anybody in the inn?

ROBIN: (Bowing) Your humble servant.

FRANCIS: (Looking about) I am in search of a young girl.

ROBIN: There is nobody in the house but me, and father and mother, and they are upstairs in bed.

FRANCIS: Who are your parents?


FRANCIS: (Surprised) I didn't know there was a Mistress Hamlet.

ROBIN: There are more things than are dreamed of in your philosophy.

FRANCIS: What would you do with a crisp pound note?

ROBIN: Up to ten minutes ago I should have said run up to London for a holiday.

FRANCIS: Somewhere in the forest a young lady is hiding.

[The girl peeps through the door.]

ROBIN: In the forest?

FRANCIS: She is attempting to avoid me.

ROBIN: Impossible.

FRANCIS: (With a bit of a swagger) Oh, its only temporary, of course. She can't escape me for long. Find her for me and the pound is yours.

ROBIN: Make it a guinea and I'll look for her tomorrow.

FRANCIS: Tomorrow may be too late.


FRANCIS: Can you keep a secret?

ROBIN: How can I tell 'til you have told me?

FRANCIS: There is someone else searching for her too.


FRANCIS: But the quest is mine for today at least. Friend William doesn't suspect that I know that he is tracking her. He's very shrewd. He sent me an anonymous letter to lead me astray but I tricked him this time.


FRANCIS: I sent him an anonymous letter and by now he is safe on the road to Richmond where he thinks she is waiting for him.

ROBIN: You are very ingenious. You ought to be a dramatist.

FRANCIS: (Chagrined) I leave drama to duller wits, like William. My, how I could enjoy a laugh at his expense. (And he begins to chuckle softly)

ROBIN: Why don't you?

FRANCIS: (Stopping) Laughter does not become a philosopher.

ROBIN: Are you afraid you will strain your soul?

FRANCIS: (Disputatiously) How can one strain the non-existent? I haven't yet established the soul as an entity. That's one of the things I promised to do if only that elusive girl would come and keep house for me.

ROBIN: How long do you give me to find her for you?

FRANCIS: The sooner the better. I have philosophic premonitions. (Then mysteriously) I see things as in a crystal.

ROBIN: You must meet mamma. She loves fortune telling too.

FRANCIS: Forebodings beset me. I feel that if she isn't mine in fifteen minutes I may lose her forever. "There is a tide--"

ROBIN: What's that?

FRANCIS: A trifle of William's.

ROBIN: Why stop to quote?

FRANCIS: It is a hopeless habit of philosophers.

But now,
The field is free and high adventure hangs
Upon the moment.

ROBIN: Why, what is the matter with you, are you speaking verse?

FRANCIS: I feel a spiritual influence.

[And at this moment there is another knock at the door. FRANCIS starts back. A moment's pause. Then he bids ROBIN see who it is. ROBIN goes to the window, looks out, and then tip-toes back to FRANCIS.]

ROBIN: It's a man with a Vandyke beard.

FRANCIS: (Breathless) Anachronistic, but no matter. It's William. Quick, hide me.

[ROBIN pushes him into the high back settle of the fireplace, as WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE opens the door and comes in.]

WILLIAM: Good morrow, Puck.

ROBIN: I am Robin Goodfellow, and my name's not Puck.

WILLIAM: It will be, henceforth and for ever!
I christen you anew, transmuting Robin,
By the bright alchemy of singing sounds,
To Puck, pert symbol of eternal laughter.
Is any one at home?

ROBIN: Only me and father and mother and they're upstairs in bed.

[And FRANCIS hopefully expecting more iambics begins assiduously scribbling in his great book all the verses WILLIAM speaks.]

WILLIAM: Bidding the day drowse laggard in the lap

Of Night. And who's your father, Puck?

ROBIN: My father's name is Hamlet and my mother's name is Mistress Cleopatra Hamlet.

WILLIAM: A combination greatly to be dreaded.

Alas, poor Hamlet. (And for a moment it is prose.) I knew him Puck. A fellow of perpetual sighs and melancholy fancies.

You say the inn is empty, jack-a-napes,
Save for the snores of those two ancient lovers
One flight up?

ROBIN: There hasn't been a soul come here in months.

WILLIAM: Have you, perchance, by some blest mishap seen
A maiden in the woodlands?

ROBIN: Some one may be wandering in the forest.

WILLIAM: What would a gleaming guinea mean to you?

ROBIN: The first tip I've had since Christmas.

WILLIAM: Bring me the lady hither and the trash
Is yours.

ROBIN: I'll look for her tomorrow.

WILLIAM: Tomorrow and tomorrow, no, my lad!
There is a glass called opportunity
All pregnant with bright prophecies, if man
But read at the propitious moment.
But,--let the fecund second slip and lo!
The globule tumbles from his coward's hands
Splintering a rain of lost forevers
Upon the sunless stretches of the world.

ROBIN: (Mystified) I don't think that I understand you.

WILLIAM: (Smilingly) Very few people do at a first hearing. I'll make it two guineas if you find the girl instanta.

ROBIN: Why such unpremeditated haste? Is the lady well to do?

WILLIAM: She's richer than the rubied Mexique mine
For with the tingling penny of her name
She spells eternity.

Can you keep a secret?

ROBIN: A secret's not a secret 'til it's shared by two.

WILLIAM: Properly turned, that might make a charming couplet. Listen, boy.

ROBIN: Yes, sir.

WILLIAM: There is someone else looking for the lady too, a very learned gentleman.

ROBIN: If the other fellow is so clever he will find her first.

WILLIAM: (Angrily) Atom! Fellow me no fellows. No Puck, Sir Francis doesn't suspect I know he's tracking her. He's very shrewd. He sent me an anonymous letter to lead me astray, but I tricked him this time.

[FRANCIS and the girl anxiously listening.]


WILLIAM: I sent him an anonymous letter and by now he is safely on the way to Windsor, where he thinks the girl's awaiting him. Ha! Ha! (He stops short)

ROBIN: What's the matter?

WILLIAM: My laugh is out of joint, oh cursèd spite!
A laugh's not laughter that's not laughed outright.

[FRANCIS peeps from behind the settle.]

ROBIN: I'm sorry for you. (He sees FRANCIS) So you can't laugh either.

WILLIAM: Only with difficulty, since my marriage.


WILLIAM: When I bartered my priceless bachelorhood for Ann's disappointing virginity, my sense of comedy became so poignant that now I'm forever hearing the echo of old tears in the ripple of new laughter.

ROBIN: It must be very un-funny to be a humourist.

WILLIAM: Nothing is more tragic. If I could only recapture my early manner, I think I might persuade my runaway daughter to abide with me.

[On hearing this, the girl who has been watching both FRANCIS and WILLIAM, can contain herself no longer and bursts into an unrestrained peal of merriment.]

WILLIAM: What's that?

ROBIN: What?

WILLIAM: That voice--that sudden sweet and silver voice,
More mellow than the chanting cherubim
In holy hallelujahs at the feet
Of God.

ROBIN: Be still. If it's she and she hears you speaking poetry, she'll probably be too frightened to come in.

[And ROBIN pushes WILLIAM into the seat of the fire-place opposite FRANCIS. The girl runs over and hides behind the settle. And ROBIN taking a bellows from the chimney piece blows up the flame. WILLIAM and FRANCIS seeing each other, spring up.]

WILLIAM: Angels and ministers of grace defend me.
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned.

FRANCES: (Stepping out into the room) Stop quoting me, William!

WILLIAM: Alas, poor ghost.

FRANCIS: You know perfectly well that no theory of spiritualism has ever been irrefutably proved.

WILLIAM: (Coming forward) That being so all I can say is:
Oh, that your too, too solid flesh would melt.

FRANCIS: I heard you. It's disgraceful the way you are treating Mistress Hathaway Shakespeare. Running after a young girl like this.

WILLIAM: With my wife I have nothing to reproach myself.

FRANCIS: Why not?

WILLIAM: As a shrine for memory, I have willed her my best bedstead.

FRANCIS: Is that the way to repay me for writing half your plays for you?

WILLIAM: Only in return for my writing most of your essays.

FRANCIS: Oh, sharper than the serpent's tooth.

WILLIAM: Even because you're excited, you needn't divulge our literary secrets.

FRANCIS: (Fuming) Thou canst not but be false to every man.

WILLIAM: Francis, don't,--even because you are angry--don't misquote me.

FRANCIS: (Storming) Angry, nothing in the world can make me angry. I'm a philosopher. Come let's search the house!

[They start to do so, but this is too much for ROBIN and the girl who have been violently flirting behind the settle, and their laughter startles the two literary men. They are going on tip-toe in the direction of the settle, but ROBIN suddenly rushes to the window and points in the direction of the forest.]

ROBIN: Look, there in the sunlight, there she is.

[And FRANCIS and WILLIAM bolt madly from the room.]

IMMORTALITY: Your wit works swift as laughter.

ROBIN: (Turning to her) You're safe, and now my wages, please.

IMMORTALITY: Some day I'll pay you with a kiss.

ROBIN: Some day? I've forfeited my London holiday and now, you bid me a ten year's pilgrim, questing the scarlet altar of your lips.

IMMORTALITY: I didn't say ten years. (She comes toward him.) A kiss is but a little sweetness.

ROBIN: Leaping the road to rapture. (They kiss.) Oh, I am dizzy with eternity. Come, let's lose ourselves in Arden. (ROBIN takes her hand.)

IMMORTALITY: Wait but a moment, I shall leave them, this.

[During this speech, she breaks off some leaves of her laurel crown and drops them on the table.]

For memory of me, that they may be remembered.

ROBIN: Come, come. And none will ever find us, wandering the tangle of sweet ways, leading forever--nowhere.

IMMORTALITY: Who are you?

ROBIN: (Lyrically) I am youth and my faith is laughter. And who are you?

IMMORTALITY: (And she must make the words seem to glitter) I am Immortality and my faith is youth.

[Then hand in hand, they rush to the door, but stop suddenly, hearing the voices of FRANCIS and WILLIAM, as the poet and philosopher come up the path. They slink behind the door, and as it flies open, and WILLIAM and FRANCIS burst into the room, ROBIN and the girl leap through the open window and disappear into the forest.]

FRANCIS: (Storming) There was nothing there but a rooster shrieking dominion on his heap of garbage.

WILLIAM: Life, must I ever smother with mine aged
Sagacity, this sudden summer swift
With too sweet passing, that hath stirred
The falling autumn of my days.

FRANCIS: (For the philosophic digression quite disgusts him) That's it, soliloquize instead of helping me find the boy!

[And at this moment the girl's song is heard in the distance.]

WILLIAM: Oh, my prophetic soul they've gone forever! (He sees the laurel on the table.) What's this! A branch of new plucked laurel?

FRANCIS: (Furious) That's it, poetize!!!

WILLIAM: Soft, soft, there is an odour of eternity about us! (He breaks off a sprig of the laurel.) And here's a leaf for you, friend Francis.

[And FRANCIS infuriated throws the leaf to the floor while the curtain falls.]


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