One-Act Plays
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a morality play in one act

by Louise Bryant

The following one-act play is reprinted from The Provincetown Plays. New York: Frank Shay, 1916. It is now in the public domain and may therefore be performed without royalties.



[AT THE RISE, Death is lying on the ground at left, idly flipping dice. Now and then he glances sardonically at Life who is standing at the extreme right and counting aloud.]

LIFE: (Counting abstractly) Fifty thousand, fifty-one, sixty-five, ninety-- (She goes on through the next speech.)

DEATH: Come come, Life, forget your losses. It's no fun playing with a dull partner. I had hoped for a good game tonight, although there is little in it for me--just a couple of suicides.

LIFE: (With a gesture of anxiety) My dear Death, I wish you would grant me a favor.

DEATH: (Grumbling) A favor. A favor. Now isn't that just like a woman? I never saw one yet who was willing to abide by the results of a fair game.

LIFE: (Earnestly) But I want these two, whether I win or lose. I really must have them. They are geniuses--and you know how badly I am in need of geniuses right now. Ungrateful spoiled children! They always want to commit suicide over their first disappointments.

DEATH: (Impatiently) How many times must I tell you that the game must be played! It's the law--you know it as well as I do.

LIFE: (Shrugging) O, the law! Laws are always in your favor, Death!

DEATH: There you are. I always said the universe would be in a wild state of disorder if the women had any say! No, you must play the game.

LIFE: (Indignantly) Whoever said anything about not playing? All I want is your consent to let them meet here before the game begins.

DEATH: I'll bet this isn't so innocent as it sounds. Who are they? I haven't paid much attention to the case.

LIFE: Youth and The Girl. He is a Poet, and she a Dancer.

DEATH: A strong man and a beautiful woman. (He laughs, ironically) Up to the same old tricks, eh? You sly thing, you think if they meet they'll fall in love and cheat me! (Pause.) Well, suppose I consent. What will you give?

LIFE: (Quickly) I'll give you Kaiser Wilhelm, The Czar of Russia, George of England and old Francis Joseph--that's two to one!

DEATH: Now that's dishonest. You're always trying to unload a lot of monarchs on me when you know I don't want them. Why, when you play for them you almost go to sleep and I always win. No bargaining in kings, my dear.

LIFE: I'll give you a whole regiment of soldiers.

DEATH: (With scorn) Soldiers! What do you care about soldiers? Look at your figures again. You've been losing millions of soldiers in Europe for the past two years--and you're much more excited about these two rattle-pated young idiots. Your idea of a fair trade is to get something for nothing. You love too much. With such covetness how can you ever know the thrill of chance?

LIFE: (Pleading) O I'll give you anything.

[Enter Youth, with hanging melancholy head.]

DEATH: Sshh! Too late! Here's one of them.

LIFE: (Turning) Youth! (To Death) You've tricked me. You were only playing for time.

DEATH: Come, sister. Be game. All's fair in everything but the dice. And just think. If you win this cast the other is half won. They'll meet then ...

YOUTH: (Seeint the two and starting. To Life.) Who are you?

LIFE: (Anxiously) I am Life!

YOUTH: (Bitterly) O, I am through with you ... I want none of you! (Turning his back and addressing Death) And who are you?

DEATH: (Rising with cheerful complacency) I am Death!

YOUTH: (Taken aback) Death! How different from my dream of you. I thought you were sombre, austere; and instead, you're--if I may say so--just a trifle commonplace.

DEATH: I'm not as young as I once was. One's figure, you know--

LIFE: (Delightedly) Ah!

DEATH: Look at her. A pleasing exterior, eh? And yet you wouldn't be seeking me if you didn't know better. Alas, my boy, beauty is not even skin deep.

YOUTH: That is true. (Going to Death) Ah, Death, I have been seeking you for weeks.

DEATH: Yet I am always present. Where did you seek me?

YOUTH: (Excitedly, with gestures) I tried poison, but just as I was about to swallow it they snatched it from me ... I tried to shoot myself. They cheated me; the pistol wouldn't go off.

DEATH: Well-meaning idiots!

YOUTH: So I came here to leap into the sea!

DEATH: Very good. Only hurry. Some one might come.

LIFE: Why do you wish to die?

YOUTH: (Hotly) As if you didn't know. Did you not give me the power to string beautiful words into songs--did you not give me Love to sing to and take Love away? I cannot sing any more! And yet you ask me why I want to die! I am not a slave! Slaves live just to eat and be clothed--you have plenty of them!

LIFE: (Sadly) Yes, I have plenty of them.

YOUTH: If I cannot have love to warm me, I cannot create beauty. And if I cannot create beauty, I will not live!

LIFE: Are you sure it was Love? I think it was only Desire I gave you; you did not seem ready for Love.

YOUTH: (Passionately) Falsehoods. Evasions. What is Love, then? You gave me a girl who sold flowers on the street. She had hair like gold and a body all curves and rose-white like marble. I sang my songs for her, and the whole world listened. Then an ugly beast came and offered her gold ... and she laughed at me--and went away.

DEATH: (Laughing indulgently) That is Love, my boy. You are lucky to find it out so young.

LIFE: Now I know it was desire.

YOUTH: (To Death) Why will she persist in lying?

DEATH: (Gallantly) I am a sport and a gentleman and I must admit that Life is as truthful as I am.

LIFE: Listen, Youth, and answer me. Did your sweetheart understand your songs?

YOUTH: Why should she? Women do not have to understand. They must be fragrant and beautiful--like flowers.

LIFE: And is that all?

YOUTH: (Slightly confused) I do not know many women.

LIFE: I will show you one who understands your songs. She is coming here.

DEATH: (Harshly) To leap into the sea, like you!

LIFE: Because she is lonely--waiting for you.

YOUTH: For me! But I do not know her!

LIFE: But she knows you--through your songs...

DEATH: (Scornfully) And you have been seeking me for weeks! Are you to be fooled again by this tricky charlatan? You who have had enough of Life? There is no place for cowards among the lofty dead!

YOUTH: O Death, forgive me! Life, farewell!

[He stretches out his arms and turns towards the cliff.]

LIFE: (Crying out) Hold! We must play first.

[Youth stands as he is, with outstretched arms as they play.]

DEATH: (Jovially) So now it is you who are asking me to play! Come, Life do me a favor. Give me this one and the girl shall be yours!

LIFE: (Excitedly) No. The game must be played. It is the law!

[Death laughs. They go to center stage and throw the dice. Death frowns and grumbles.]

LIFE: (Rising with a happy smile) I have won!

YOUTH: (Dropping his arms and turning slowly. Sadly.) Then I am to live--in spite of myself. Death, I have lost you. Life, I hate you. Without Love you are crueller than Death.

LIFE: Soon the Girl will be here. Then you will think me beautiful.

DEATH: That's the comedy of it. You probably will, you know.

YOUTH: (With a gesture of revulsion) Promises. Promises. Love comes but one--

[He breaks off and stares as the Girl rushes in. She almost runs into Life, then suddenly recoils.]

GIRL: Who are you?

LIFE: I am Life.

GIRL: O, Life dear, I must leave you! I cannot bear you any longer. You are so white and so cold!

LIFE: What have you to complain of? Have I not given you Fame, and Worship and Wealth?

GIRL: What are all these ... without Love?

DEATH: (With a smile) What--you without Love? How about those who stand at the stage door every evening--and send you flowers and jewels? One of them shot himself because you stamped on his flowers. Believe me, my dear, that is all the Love there is--

GIRL: Love? No. That was Desire!

DEATH: Bah! Desire when they seek you--Love when you seek them.

GIRL: No, No. Love understands. They didn't. They wanted to buy me in order to destroy me. That is why I stamped on their flowers.

DEATH: (Humorously) Ah, the young. Incurably sentimental.

YOUTH: (Impetuously) Good. I'm glad you did.

GIRL: (Startled) Why, who are you?

YOUTH: I am Youth.

GIRL: (Drawing back) Youth, the Poet? You? O I know all your songs by heart. I have kissed every line. Always, when I dance, I try to dance them. (Looking around fearfully) But why are you here?

DEATH: (Grimly) He came to throw himself into the sea!

GIRL: (Alarmed. Clutching him by the arm.) Oh, no. You must not. What would the poor world do without your beautiful songs?

LIFE: Do not be afraid, my dear, I have won.

YOUTH: (Sighing) Alas!

GIRL: Why did you want to die?

DEATH: (Slyly) His sweetheart left him.

GIRL: (Drawing back coldly) His sweetheart! So he loves someone! I don't believe you. How could any woman he loved ... when he sings so sweetly--

LIFE: His songs meant nothing to her.

GIRL: Nothing! (Going to Youth) O then she was not worth your love. She was like the men who wait for me at the stage-door; she wanted to destroy you.

DEATH: Such is Life, my dear young lady, Love is the destroyer always.

YOUTH: (Bitterly) You are right. It is all a myth--Life, Love, Happiness. I must idealize someone, something--and then the bubble bursts and I am alone. No. If she could not understand, no one could understand.

GIRL: (Eagerly) O how wrong you are! I understand. Don't you believe me? I have danced all you have sung. Do you remember "The Bird Calls?"

[She dances. Youth watches with astonishment and growing delight.]

YOUTH: How beautiful! You do understand--you do! Wings flash and soar when you dance! You skim the sea gloriously, lifting your quivering feathery breast against the sunny wind. Dance again for me. Dance my "Cloud Flight!"

GIRL: The loveliest of all! (Remembering sadly) But I can never dance for you anymore. I came here to die!

DEATH: And you'd forgotten it already! O you're all alike, you suicides. Life's shallowest little deceit fools you again--though you have seen through her and know her for what she is.

GIRL: (Hesitating) But I have found Youth.

YOUTH: (Swiftly) Yes, and Youth has found Love--real Love at last. Love that burns like fire and flowers like the trees. You shall not die. (To Death) And I will fight you for her! Love is stronger than Death!

DEATH: Than Life, you mean. Think of the great lovers of the world--Paola and Francesca, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde. I, I claimed them all. Who are you to set yourself up against such august prcedents? (To the Girl) You think he loves you. It is not you he loves, but your dancing of his songs. He is a Poet--therefore he loves only himself. And his sweetheart, for lack of whom he was going to die. See! He has already forgotten her! (Slowly) As you will one day be forgotten.

LIFE: (To Girl) Why ask too much of me? I can only give happiness for a moment--but it is real happiness--Love, Creation, Unity with the tremendous rhythm of the universe. I can't promise it will endure. I won't say you will not some day be forgotten. What if it is himself he loves in you? That, too, is Love.

GIRL: To be supremely happy for a moment--an hour--that is worth living for!

DEATH: Life offers you many things--I but one. She pours out the sunshine before you to make you glad; she sends the winter to chill your heart. She gives you Love and Desire--and takes them away. She brings you warm quietness--and kills it with hunger and anxiety. Life offers you many things--I but one. Come closer, tired heart, and hold out your weary hands. See! What a pearl I offer--to kings and beggars alike. Come--I will give you peace!

GIRL: (Spurning him) Peace? Do you think I want peace--I, a dancer, a child of the whirling winds? Do you think I would be blind to the sunlight, deaf to Youth's music--to my sweet applause, dumb to laughter? All this joy that is in me--scattered in darkness? Dust in my hair--in my eyes--on my dancing feet? (Hesitating) And yet--and yet Life is so cruel!

YOUTH: (Going to her) My dearest. We will never leave one another.

LIFE: She is mine!

DEATH: (Sardonically) Haven't you forgotten something? The game!

LIFE: It is half-won. She too has found love.

DEATH: Ah! But in willing to die she laid her life on the knees of the Fates. So we must play for her. It is the law.

LIFE: O I am not afraid to play. This time I have you, Death.

DEATH: Have me! Ho, Ho. Nay, Life. I am cleverer than you. On this game hangs the doom of both!

LIFE: (Astonished) Of both? (Furiously) You lie, Death! I have already won Youth, he cannot die.

DEATH: (Laughing) Ho. Ho. Youth cannot die, you say. True. But the Girl dies if I win; isn't that so? (Life nods.) Well, and if she dies, what then? He loves her, yet he cannot follow. Nay, he shall live--forever mute, forever regretting his lost love, until you yourself will beg me to take him!

LIFE: (Falling on her knees) O Death, I beg of you--

DEATH: Ho. Ho. Life on her knees to Death. No, sister. I couldn't help you if I would. It is the law. Let us play.

LIFE: (Resigned) It is the law.

[They go to the center of stage and play.]

LIFE: (Joyously) O I have won again!

DEATH: (Blackly, hurling the dice to the ground) Yes, curse the luck! But some day we'll play for those two again--and then it will be my turn.

YOUTH: Yes. But we will have lived. Until then, Death, you are Powerless. I fear you not, and I will guard her from you.

DEATH: (Shrugging) Geniuses! Geniuses!

GIRL: (To Youth) How brave--how strong--how beautiful is my lover!

[They go offstage with their arms about each other.]

DEATH: Well, it was a good game after all. You see, that's the difference between you and me; you play to win, and I play for the fun of the thing. (He laughs.) But tell me, Life; why is it you make such a fuss over dreamers and care so little for soldiers?

LIFE: O, soldiers don't matter one way or the other to me; but some day the dreamers will chain you to the earth, and I will have the game all my way.

DEATH: That remains to be seen. But how about kings?

LIFE: Kings are my enemies. Do you remember how careless I was during the French Revolution? I've always had it on my conscience, and I think I'd feel better if I told you; whenever I threw a good combination, I--juggled the dice!

DEATH: (Nodding) I'm not surprised. Heavens, aren't women unscrupulous! And yet they call me unfair ... Well, I suppose I've got to keep an eye on you.

LIFE: I warn you I will stop at nothing. By the way, what's the game tomorrow night?

DEATH: A Plague. And in that game, I regret to say you haven't a chance in the world.

LIFE: Don't forget I have Science to help me.

DEATH: Science, Bah! A fool's toy! I sweep them all together in my net--the men of learning and the ones they try to cure.

LIFE: But remember that the sun, the blessed healing sun still rises every morning.

DEATH: (Irritated) Oh, don't remind me of the sun!

[He goes.]

LIFE: (Beginning to count her losses again) Two hundred thousand, seventy-five, three hundred and ten. (Looking up.) I must never let him know how much I mind losing soldiers. They are the flower of youth--there are dreamers among them...


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