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 living room in a small flat in Beekman Place. Two women, one of them in mourning, sit beside the remains of tea.]

VERA: But Jean, where are you going, when you pack up here?

JEAN: I'm not leaving here. I'm staying on.

VERA: Oh. But I thought that now ... you were talking about being free for your own work at last....

JEAN: If I have any work to do, I can do it here. You don't understand, quite. All these years I have been living from whirlpool to whirlpool, never settled, always deraciné—the thought of getting accustomed to another place makes me shudder.

VERA: I can imagine, now, how it has been, Jean. But can you find any peace here? With all these things about? You are so sensitive—lamps, and pictures, and rugs—these aren't just furniture to you, they are images of the past. Won't they be, too—real? Too personal? Won't you feel more at liberty with yourself if you create your own atmosphere?

JEAN: Ah, they are real enough! That table is a winter in Munich; the samovar is Warsaw one night in May; the lucerna is Rome ... and all that those places mean to me. I never realized how things could be alive—be personal—until I was left all alone in the midst of these.

VERA: There, don't you see? They're so dominating. I knew you before all this.... I wish you would get away—be yourself.

JEAN: No. I shall stay here. As close as possible.

VERA: But really, Jean! I'm thinking of your work. Perhaps you don't appreciate what an insidious drug memory can be. Especially the memory of unhappiness. Let's be frank, Jean, for the sake of your future. You have been unhappy.

JEAN: Unhappy? Yes, I have been outrageously unhappy! Years of it! Sharp arrows and poisoned wine. I wanted to die....

VERA: Jean!

JEAN: You read a play by Strindberg, and you say it's very strong, very artistic, but all the while you believe it is only the nightmare of a diseased mind. It's just a play—you shut the book and return to "real" life, thankfully. Well, the Strindberg play has been my real life, and real life my play, my impossible dream. You can't imagine how terrifying it is to feel the situation develop around you. Two bodies caught naked in an endless wilderness of thorns. Every movement one makes to free the other only wounds him the more. Two souls, each innocent and aspiring, bound together by serpents, like the Laocoon.... It is one of those things that are absolutely impossible ... and yet true.

VERA: I'll help you pack. Now. You must!

JEAN: We had the deepest respect and admiration for one another, but somehow we never walked in step. His emotion repressed mine, my emotion repressed his. Sometimes one was the slave, sometimes the other. We couldn't both be free at the same time. There was always something to hide, to be afraid of.... Not words nor acts, but moods. It passed over from one soul to the other like invisible rays. And we couldn't separate. That was part of it. We just went on and on....

VERA: People wondered. The first time I met Paul—

JEAN: What do you feel?

VERA: I wondered, afterward, what it really was. He seemed to impress me like a powerful motor car stalled in a muddy road.

JEAN: Ah. I know!

VERA: Poor child.

JEAN: No. You don't understand, I was unhappy, in the ordinary sense, unbelievably so. But that wasn't all. I was alive! I lived as the man lives who faints in the dark mine underground, and I lived as the aviator lives, thrilling against the sun, and as the believer in a world of infidels. That was what he did for me. And slowly, as I learned how deeply the very pain was making me live, I put my unhappiness by. It was there, but it no longer seemed important. It was the lingering complaint of my old commonplace soul standing fearfully on the brink of greater things and hating the situation that led it there.

VERA: You are a big woman, Jean.

JEAN: No, I am a small woman in front of a big thing. One of the biggest, genius. And the force of it, relentless as nature, made me what I am. Paul. Oh, Vera, when I think of his music, tempestuous as the sea, healing as spring.... And now where is it? He had what all the world wants most, flight, and the world stalled him in its own mud. You saw it.... That's why I shall stay here. It's the only place with his atmosphere. All these things are he. I face them here in silence, and I bare my breast to the arrow. Here I am, the only one who knows Paul's music in its possibility. To the rest, it is a heap of stones by the roadside. The architect is dead.

VERA: But didn't he ever ... why didn't he...?

JEAN: You ask it, of course. You have the right. Sometimes I ask it, too, why Paul never succeeded. While we were struggling along, the things that held him back seemed only details. Only now do I see them as a whole. In the first place, Paul never aimed directly at success. He was all-round. If it had been merely a question of exploiting his talent, sticking to the one idea day in, day out, never letting an opportunity slip by of meeting the right people and getting to the right places ... that would have been easy. He had tremendous energy. I used to grudge his interest in other things. I hated to see him lose the chances and let them be snapped up by littler men. He seemed to waste himself, right and left, prodigally. But it wasn't that, it wasn't waste. It was all as much a part of him as his music. He detested the stupidity of wealth and poverty, he rebelled against laws that aren't laws, but only interests enforced by authority, he fought against the sheer deadness of prejudice. How he hated all that! And why not? You see, Vera, he was sensitive to it not only as a thinker, but as a musician, too. It was all a part of the discord, and what I used to think his wasting himself was really an effort to create a larger harmony. He used to say that the beauty of music is only the image of beauty in life, and that life must come first. He couldn't endure discords anywhere. Paul despised the musicians who scream at a flatted f but hunger for the flesh pots after the performance. No, he was never that. And people resented it. The very people who ought to have understood.

VERA: But he didn't neglect his music, that is...?

JEAN: No. He made enormous efforts to get his violin before the public. And several times he was "discovered" by men who could have made him famous overnight. We all believe that genius will out, despite anything, but it doesn't always. Musicians respected him, but they were afraid of him, too. He criticized them for their shortcomings in other things, just as he criticized others for their shortcomings in art. He wouldn't accept any talent, no matter how fine, if it went with anything small or destructive. You can imagine the china shops he left in fragments! Just think! Once in Berlin it was all arranged for him to have a recital—he was working furiously on his program and I was dancing on air—when just at the last moment he heard the director make some light remark or other about women. Paul was raging! He threw the words back in the fellow's teeth, and made him apologize, but there we were. They called off the recital, naturally. And I couldn't blame Paul. I was just beginning to understand. Another time ... no, he never had luck. Paul had bad luck. I often think of the Greek tragedies.

VERA: Another time?

JEAN: Another time—it was in Warsaw—we had gone with a letter of introduction to Sbarovitch—

VERA: The Sbarovitch?

JEAN: Yes. It was a chance in ten thousand. We pawned stuff to get there. Well, Paul played like a god. Sbarovitch was quite overcome. He swore he would compose something especially for Paul. We had visions of playing before the Czar.

VERA: But what happened?

JEAN: What happened? One night a woman called on Paul at the hotel. He went down, not knowing who it was or anything about her. He said afterward that she started in flattering him and asking him to play for her some time.... Then Sbarovitch rushed in, seizing the woman and cursing Paul with mouthfuls of Slavic hate. So that dream ended!

VERA: But why? Was it Sbarovitch's wife?

JEAN: No, worse luck—it was his mistress. Ah, you can't imagine the re-action from such disappointments! The long, slow warming to the full possibility of the occasion, until the artist's mind and body become one leaping flame—and then the sudden fall into icy water. It takes months to work up to the same pitch again.... And then Rome.

VERA: What, again?

JEAN: Oh, yes. Again. This time—for a wonder everything went smoothly. I had watched over him like a cat, to save him from others' stupidity and his own impetuousness. It came the very moment when he had to go to the theatre. He asked me if I were ready, I wasn't. I didn't want to go.

VERA: You didn't want to go?

JEAN: No. It's difficult to explain, but somehow by then I had grown aware that the long series of little obstacles, each one accidental and temporary, seemed to express something unseen, something impersonal, a kind of fate ... as if the verdict had gone forth from the lords of things that Paul was not to succeed. And everything seemed to hang in the balance that night. I thought that the fact I was aware of Paul's bad luck made me all the likelier instrument for it to work through. So I told him I had a headache.... He must have felt something in my voice. He dropped his violin and demanded I tell him why I didn't want to go. His intuition told him it was a matter of will with me. I hadn't thought to have a story ready. Besides, I was so worn out that I was on the verge of hysteria. He stormed, and I sat staring at him without a word, wondering only why he didn't forget poor insignificant me and go forth to his glory. I despised him for considering me at such a moment. I didn't understand. My opinion, my feeling, was more important to Paul than the rest of the world. So, after all, I was the instrument.

VERA: But why didn't you just get up and go?

JEAN: As soon as I saw how much it meant to Paul, I tried to. But it was too late.... We sat there arguing until three in the morning. An orgy of tears and self-immolation for us both.... I suppose he might have explained to the director afterward and arranged another concert, but those things are never the same the second time. Well, I forced myself to get rid of that feeling about his bad luck. How I ever succeeded I don't know, for Paul caught my mood and began to believe it himself. But somehow I did. And then I made him give up his violin and begin composing. Of course we had to have money for that. I wrote a relative and demanded, point blank, shamelessly, two thousand dollars. I felt it was my restitution to Paul. I received the money. What the relative thought, I don't know. I suppose he paid it to avoid getting another such letter from me. I don't blame him. So we came over here and Paul started at work. I was fighting for him and with him every moment. How he worked! Six months, like a coal heaver. Then he finished and played it over. He tore it all up. Every note.

VERA: Why?

JEAN: He said it was written in an old-fashioned style. It was curious—in his playing he appreciated the most advanced technic, but when be came to compose he found himself imitating the things he had admired when he was eighteen. It had to be worked out of his mind. Well, he did it all through again. This time he said he was only about two years behind. Tore it up again. But now he was convinced he could succeed. And he was magnificent! I would have shared him with the world gladly, but I knew it was best for him to do this work. The hours this room has seen! Well, he made a few notes, stopped a few days to take breath, and then caught the cold that wore him out. Over there, in that drawer, are the notes, a few scraps of paper. The rest of it—the experience of a strong life, a visioning life, are with the mind that is dumb. Sometimes when I sit here I hear it all played, an orchestra ... new harmonies, pure emotion.... The wonder and then the pain of it are almost unbearable.

VERA: Ah, Jean, I begin to understand.

JEAN: Over in London there are half a dozen men and women who caught a glimpse of Paul as he really was. In Munich there are half a dozen more. He was at his best in a studio among friends with a congenial atmosphere. They knew... but what is that? I tell you, Vera, the only way I can explain it all is by seeing two forces, two moralities; the morality of God and the morality of nature. Perhaps in some people they both work together for the same end, but they don't always.... In the sight of heaven, Paul was an apostle of harmony. In the sight of nature, he was the seed too many on the tree, the bird wrongly colored in the forest. I sit among these things, the fast-ebbing beats of his memory, thinking of what he might have been for others as he was to me, and my heart breaks. Our unhappiness? A cloud passing before the sun—nothing more. And during this past year I have come to love him all over again, not as mate but as mother.

VERA: Ah, Jean, with all his bad luck, he had you! Who knows what might have happened if you had not been there?

JEAN: He had me? No, he never had me—he made me.... And that's why I sit all alone with the things that are Paul,—Paul, the flame that was never lit on the altar, the sword that was never drawn from the scabbard.... We talk together, Vera. Paul and I. We talk together, and I wait for him to tell me what to do.


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