One-Act Plays
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a play in one act

by Horace Holley

The following one-act play is reprinted from Read-aloud Plays. Horace Holley. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1916. It is now in the public domain and may therefore be performed without royalties.



[The front porch of a small farmhouse in New England. Stone flags lead to the road; the yard is a careless, comfortable lawn with two or three old maples. It is autumn.]

[A BOY of sixteen or so, carrying a paper parcel, stops hesitatingly, looks in a moment and then walks to the porch. As he stands there a MAN comes out of the house. The man is in his early forties, he stoops a little, but not from weakness; his expression is one of deep calm.]

THE MAN: I wonder if you have seen my dog? I was going for a walk, but Rex seems to have grown tired of waiting.

THE BOY: Your dog? No, sir, I haven't seen him. Shall I go look?

THE MAN: No, never mind. He'll come back. Rex and I understand each other. He has his little moods, like me.

THE BOY: If you were going for a walk—?

THE MAN: It doesn't matter at all. I can go any time. You don't live in this country?

THE BOY: No, sir. I live in New York. I wish I did. It's beautiful here, isn't it?

THE MAN: It's very beautiful to me. I love it. You may have come a long road this morning, let's sit down.

THE BOY: Thank you. I'm not interfering with anything?

THE MAN: Bless your heart! No indeed. What is there to interfere with? All we have is life, and this is part of it.

THE BOY: I like to sit under these trees. It makes me think of the Old Testament.

THE MAN: That's interesting. How?

THE BOY: Well, maybe I'm wrong, but whenever I think of the Old Testament I see an old man under a tree—


THE BOY: A man who has lived it all through, you know, and found out something real about it; and he sits there calm and strong, something like a tree himself; and every once in a while somebody comes along—a boy, you know,—and the boy talks to him all about himself, just as we imagine we'd like to with our fathers, if they weren't so busy, or our teachers, if they didn't depend so much upon books, or our ministers, if we thought they would really understand,—and the old man doesn't say much maybe, but the boy goes away much stronger and happier....

THE MAN: Yes, yes, I understand. The Old Testament.... They did get hold of things, didn't they?

THE BOY: What I can't understand is how nowadays people seem more grown up and competent than those men were, in a way, and we do such wonderful things—skyscrapers and aeroplanes—and yet we aren't half so wonderful as they were in the Old Testament with their jugs and their wooden plows. I mean, we aren't near so big as the things we do, while those old fellows were so much bigger. We smile at them, but if some day one of our machines fell over on us what would we do about it?

THE MAN: I wonder.

THE BOY: I went through a big factory just last week. One of my friends' father is the manager, and all I could think of was what could a fellow do who didn't like it, who didn't fit in.... Nowadays most everybody seems competent about factories or business or something like that—you know—and they've got hold of everything, so a fellow's got to do the same thing or where is he?

THE MAN: That's the first question, certainly: where is he? But where is he if he does do the same thing?

THE BOY: Why, he's with the rest. And they don't ask that question....

THE MAN: I'm afraid they don't. It would be interesting to be there if they should begin to ask it, wouldn't it?

THE BOY: Yes.... I'd like to be there when some I know ask themselves! But they never will. Why should they?

THE MAN: Don't you mean how can they?

THE BOY: Yes, of course. They don't ask the question because the big thing they are doing seems to be the answer beforehand. But it isn't! Not compared with the Old Testament. So we have to ask it for ourselves. And that's why I came here....

THE MAN: Oh. You want to know where they are, with their power, or where you will be without it?

THE BOY: Where I'll be. I hate it! But what else is there to-day?

THE MAN: Why, there's you.

THE BOY: But that's just it! What am I for if I can't join in? I came to you.... You don't mind my talking, do you?

THE MAN: On the contrary.

THE BOY: Well, everybody I know is a part of it, so how could they tell me what to do outside of it? I've been wondering about that for a year. Before then, when I was just a boy, the world seemed full of everything, but now it seems to have only one thing. That or nothing. Then one day I saw a photograph somebody had cut out of a Sunday paper, and I thought to myself there's a man who seems outside, entirely outside, and yet he has something. It wasn't all or nothing for him ... and I wondered who it was. Then I found your book, with the same picture in it. You bet I read it right off! It was the first time in my life I had ever felt power as great as skyscrapers and railroads and yet apart from them. Outside of all they mean. Like the Old Testament. Those poems!

THE MAN: You liked them?

THE BOY: It was more than that. How can a fellow like the ocean, or a snow storm?

THE MAN: Is that what you thought they were like?

THE BOY: Why, they went off like a fourteen inch gun! Not a whine about life in them—not a single regret for anything. They were wonderful! They seemed to pick up mountains and cities and toss them all about like toys. They made me feel that what I was looking for was able to conquer what I didn't like.... I said to myself I don't care if he does laugh at me, I'll go and ask him where all that power is! And so I came....

THE MAN: There's Rex now—over across the road. He's wondering who you are. He sees we are friends, and he's pretending to be jealous. Dogs are funny, aren't they? But you were speaking about my poems. It's odd that their first criticism should come from you like this. You must be about the same age I was when I began writing—when I wanted above anything to write a book like that, and when such a book seemed the most impossible thing I could do. Like trying to swim the Atlantic, or live forever.

THE BOY: It seemed impossible? I should think it would be the most natural thing in the world, for you—like eating dinner.

THE MAN: That's the wonderful thing—not the book, but that I should have come to write it!

THE BOY: But who else could write it?

THE MAN: At your age I thought anybody could—anybody and everybody except myself.

THE BOY: Really?

THE MAN: Really and truly. You've no idea what a useless misfit I was.

THE BOY: But I read somewhere you had always been brilliant, even as a boy.

THE MAN: Unfortunately ... yes. That was what made it so hard for me. Shall I tell you about it?

THE BOY: I wish you would!

THE MAN: Brilliance—I'll tell you what that was, at least for me. I wrote several things that people called "brilliant." One in particular, a little play of decadent epigram. It was acted by amateurs before an admiring "select" audience. That was when I was twenty-one. From about sixteen on I had been acutely miserable—physically miserable. I never knew when I wouldn't actually cave in. I felt like a bankrupt living on borrowed money. Of course, it's plain enough now—the revolt of starved nerves. I cared only for my mind, grew only in that, and the rest of me withered up like a stalk in dry soil. So the flower drooped too—in decadent epigram. But nobody pointed out the truth of it all to me, and I scorned to give my body a thought. People predicted a brilliant future—for me, crying inside! Then I married. I married the girl who had taken the star part in the play. According to the logic of the situation, it was inevitable. Everybody remarked how inevitable it was. A decorative girl, you know. She wanted to be the wife of a great man.... Well, we didn't get along. There was an honest streak in me somewhere which hated deception. I couldn't play the part of "brilliant" young poet with any success. She was at me all the while to write more of the same thing. And I didn't want to. The difference between the "great" man I was supposed to be and the sick child I really was, began to torture. I knew I oughtn't to go on any further if I wanted to do anything real. Then one night we had an "artistic" dinner. My wife had gotten hold of a famous English poet, and through him a publisher. The publisher was her real game. I drank champagne before dinner so as to be "brilliant." I was. And before I realized it, Norah had secured a promise from the publisher to bring out a book of plays. I remember she said it was practically finished. But it wasn't, only the one, and I hated that. But I sat down conscientiously to write the book that she, and apparently all the world that counted, expected me to write. Well, I couldn't write it. Not a blessed word! Something inside me refused to work. And there I was. In a month or so she began to ask about it. Norah thought I ought to turn them out while she waited. I walked up and down the park one afternoon wondering what to tell her.... And when I realized that either she would never understand or would despise me, I grew desperate. I wrote her a note, full of fine phrases about "incompatibility," her "unapproachable ideals," the "soul's need of freedom"—things she would understand and wear a heroic attitude about—and fled. I came here....

THE BOY: Of course. But didn't she follow you? Didn't they bother you?

THE MAN: Not a bit. Norah preferred her lonely heroism. In a few months I was quite forgotten. That was one of the healthful things I learned. Well, I was a wreck when I came here, I wanted only to lie down under a tree.... And there it was, under that tree yonder, my salvation came.

THE BOY: Your salvation?

THE MAN: Hunger. That was my salvation. Simple, elemental, unescapable appetite. You see I had no servant, no one at all. So I had to get up and work to prepare my food.... It was very strange. Compared with this life, my life before had been like living in a locked box. Some one to do everything for me except think, and consequently I thought too much. But here the very fact of life was brought home to me. I spent weeks working about the house and grounds on the common necessities. By the time winter came on the place was fit to live in—and I was enjoying life. All the "brilliance" had faded away; I was as simple as a blade of grass. For a year I didn't write a word. I had the courage to wait for the real thing, nobody pestering me to be a "genius"! Some day you may read that first book. People said I had re-discovered the virtue of humility. I had.

THE BOY: I will read it! And how much more it will mean to me now!

THE MAN: I suppose you know the theory about vibrations—how if a little push is given a bridge, and repeated often enough at the right intervals, the bridge will fall?


THE MAN: Well, that's the whole secret of what you have been looking for—what you found in my poems.

THE BOY: I don't understand.

THE MAN: A man's life is a rhythm. Eating, sleeping, working, playing, loving, thinking—everything. And when we live so that each activity comes at the right interval, we gain power. When one interrupts another, we lose. Weakness is merely the thrust of one impulse against another, instead of their combined thrust against the world. When I came here, feeling like a criminal, I was obeying the one right instinct in a welter of emotions. It was like the faintest of heart beats in a sick body. I listened to that. Then I learned physical hunger, then sleep, and so on. It's incredible how stupid I was about the elemental art of living! I had to begin all over from the beginning, as if no one had ever lived before.

THE BOY: That's what you meant in your poems about religion.

THE MAN: Exactly! I learned that "good" is the rhythm of the man's personal nature, and that "evil" is merely the confusion of the same impulses. As time went on it became instinctive to live for and by the rhythm. Everything about my life here was caught up and used in the vision of power—drawing water, cutting wood, digging in the garden, dawn. It was all marvelous—I couldn't help writing those poems. They are the natural joys and sorrows of ten years. As a matter of fact, though, I grew to care less and less about writing, as living became fuller and richer. People write too much. They would write less if they had to make the fire in the morning.

THE BOY: The first impulse ... I see. Oh, life might be so simple!

THE MAN: Why not? The animals have it. Men have it at times, but we make each other forget. If we could only be each other's reminders instead of forgetters!

THE BOY: Yes! But I see the only thing to do is to go away, like you.

THE MAN: Not necessarily, I was merely a bad case, and required a desperate remedy, earth and air and freedom from others' will. I need the country, but the next man might require the city as passionately. Don't imagine that only the hermits, like me, live instinctively. It can be done in New York, too, only one mustn't be so sensitive to others.... After all, friend, we were wrong in saying that this power lies outside the world of skyscrapers and business. It doesn't lie outside nor inside. It cuts across everything. Do you see? For it's all a matter of the man's own soul.

THE BOY: Then?

THE MAN: We can't live in a vacuum. The more you feel the force, the more you must act. The more you can act. And in the long run it doesn't matter what you do, if you do what your own instinct bids.

THE BOY: Then I could stay right in the midst of it?

THE MAN: Yes. And if you were thinking of writing poetry, it might even be better to stay in the midst of it. Drama, you know ... and it's time for a new drama.

THE BOY: It isn't that, with me. I can't write.... I had one splendid teacher. He used to talk about things right in class. He said that most educated people think that intellect is a matter of making fine distinctions—of seeing as two separate points what the unintelligent would believe was one point; but that this idea was finicky. He wanted us to see that intelligence might also be a matter of seeing the connection between two things so far apart that most people would think they were always separate. I like that. It made education mean something, because it made it depend on imagination instead of grubbing. And then he told us about the history of our subject—grammar. How it began as poetry, when every word was an original creation; and then became philosophy, as people had to arrange speech with thought; and then science, with more or less exact, laws. I could see it—the thing became alive. And he said all knowledge passed through the same stages, and there isn't anything that can't eventually be made scientific. That made me think a good deal. I wondered if somebody couldn't work out a way of preventing anybody from being poor. It seems so unnecessary, with so much work being done. That's what I want to do. Thanks to you, I—

THE MAN: Here's Rex! Rex, know my good friend. I know you will like him. Rex always cares for the people I do, don't you, Rex?

THE BOY: Of course, I see one thing: it's the people nearest one that make the most difference. Mother, now, she will understand.... You don't believe in marrying, though, do you?

THE MAN: I certainly do!

THE BOY: But I thought—

THE MAN: You thought because I left one woman and hadn't found another that I didn't care for women? Others believe that, too, but it isn't so. On the contrary. You see, I didn't so much leave her as get away from my own failure. Of course, there is such a thing as the wrong woman. She makes a man a fraction. The better she is in herself, the less she leaves him to live by. One twentieth is less than one half. But the right woman! She multiplies a man....


THE MAN: Why, you might have told from my poems how I believe in love.

THE BOY: I don't remember any love poems.

THE MAN: Bless your heart! Every one of them was a love poem. Not the old-fashioned kind, about fading roses and tender hearts.... I sent that book out as a cry for the mate. It is charged with the fulness of love. That's why I could write about trees and storms.

THE BOY: I suppose if I had been older....

THE MAN: It isn't one's age but one's need. She will understand. Look, the sun has gone round the corner of the house. Is that lunch you have in the parcel?


THE MAN: Would you like to make it a picnic? I'll get something from the house, and then we can walk to the woods.

THE BOY: I'd love to!

THE MAN: All right, I'll be ready in no time. Come, Rex!


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