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

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.



[A studio on the Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs. There is a small entrance hall, kitchenette, and a balcony before which curtains are drawn. It is a winter afternoon, and a young man is busy at an easel placed close beside the north light. A young woman arranges tea things on the table.]


JOE: Um.


JOE: Um—um!

[She walks over, draws his watch from his pocket and shows him the time.]

SILVIA: It's nearly four o'clock.

JOE: Just a minute—the light's fine, and I want to finish.

SILVIA: Yes, I know, but he may be here any minute.

JOE: Tea on?


JOE: Well, that'll keep him while I get ready. That's mostly what they came for, anyhow.

SILVIA: But he's different. He isn't a Cook's tourist—

JOE: No, he's a relative!

SILVIA: You wouldn't say that if one of your family dropped in. Besides, I've never even seen him. And he's something of a collector, Joe. He buys pictures.

JOE: So I hear. The last thing he bought was a Bougereau!

SILVIA: Well, he's a relative ... and when he sees your last things!

JOE: Um.... There, it's all done.

SILVIA: I'm crazy to see it, Joe, but run up and get ready. Sh!

[A knock at the door. Joe runs upstairs to the balcony. Silvia opens the door and admits Mr. Wentworth, rather stout and with gold spectacles.]

MR. WENTWORTH: Mrs. Carson?

SILVIA: Yes. This is Mr. Wentworth? Joe and I have been expecting you. Let me take your coat. The studio's rather upset just now—

MR. WENTWORTH: Delightful! How I love the atmosphere of work in a studio! I used to paint a bit myself, you know.

SILVIA: Did you? Father never mentioned that.

MR. WENTWORTH: Oh, I guess everybody has forgotten it by now. An early adventure with life! Goodness only knows what might have happened, though, if the business hadn't fallen on me to look out for. I might have been a great artist. Ha!

SILVIA: I'm sure you would, Mr. Wentworth. You've always been interested in art, haven't you?

MR. WENTWORTH: Yes indeed. Of course I have been very busy, until lately. But I always followed the best English magazines.

SILVIA: My husband's upstairs getting the paint off his hands. He will be down in a minute. Then we'll have some tea.

MR. WENTWORTH: You don't paint, do you, Silvia? I may call you Silvia, may I not?

SILVIA: Of course. No, I don't paint. I just fly around amongst the artists and see what's going on. Are you staying in Paris very long?

MR. WENTWORTH: A couple of weeks more, at least. I am revelling in the galleries and museums here.

SILVIA: Here comes Joe. Joe, I want you to meet my cousin, Mr. Wentworth. Mr. Wentworth—Mr. Carson.

JOE: Very glad to meet you, Mr. Wentworth.

MR. WENTWORTH: It's a great pleasure for me to meet a real artist, Mr. Carson.

SILVIA: Excuse me a moment. I'll bring on the tea.

JOE: Oh, as for that—I'm working along. Sometimes I hit it—

MR. WENTWORTH: Ars longa, vita brevis you know! I want to see your pictures very much. I was just telling Silvia how I delight in the Louvre. I go there with a class for lectures every morning. I suppose you often copy the old masters?

JOE: Copy the old masters? I should say not. I'm not out to be a camera. It's all I can do to work out my own impressions.

MR. WENTWORTH: Oh, I see. But—

SILVIA: The tea's ready. Joe, bring up that chair for Mr. Wentworth. Mr. Wentworth, do you take cream and sugar?

MR. WENTWORTH: If you please. Yes, two lumps. There's nothing like the atmosphere of a studio, is there? I love it. I feel I have missed so much. Still, the instinct for beauty, fragile as it is, does persist.... I was surprised to feel so many of my old emotions awake on coming to Paris. So much that hasn't been real to me for years! I have gained much inspiration for planning my new house.

SILVIA: You are building a new house? I have heard father talk about your collection of Japanese prints.

MR. WENTWORTH: A really delightful thing, Japanese prints. Yes, I intend building on Long Island. And my new interest in pictures ... I shall have a gallery especially for them.

JOE: Americans haven't done any too much for art so far.

MR. WENTWORTH: Oh, I assure you! I know many men who are continually buying the best on the market.

JOE: Oh, that....

SILVIA: Another cup, Mr. Wentworth? Joe, pass the cake.

MR. WENTWORTH: No, thank you, Silvia. Yes, the cake if you please. Why, it's real English plumcake!

SILVIA: English things are getting very popular over here. Joe, won't you show us the new picture? He finished it just before you came, Mr. Wentworth.

MR. WENTWORTH: Indeed! I should like to see it very much.

JOE: There isn't very much light.

SILVIA: No, the light is poor. But even so—and your colors will stand out, Joe.

MR. WENTWORTH: Really, Mr. Carson, I counted on seeing some of your work. I have heard, nice things about you.

JOE: There. If you stand just here....

SILVIA: Oh, Joe!

JOE: What?

SILVIA: It's our little cottage! I'm so glad! That's where we lived last summer, Mr. Wentworth. I always wanted Joe to paint it. Joe, it's splendid! Don't you think so, Mr. Wentworth?

MR. WENTWORTH: Yes.... Yes. Very interesting....

SILVIA: Don't you love the bright colors and the firm, flowing lines?

MR. WENTWORTH: Of course, it isn't exactly what I have been accustomed to.... I have heard that some of the younger Frenchmen and Russians are painting in a new way, but—

SILVIA: Joe, it's so alive! I feel it, every inch of it! You've no idea, Mr. Wentworth, how Joe's painting has changed me. I used to be such a little New Englander, afraid of life, but now—

JOE: It isn't only what you call the "younger Frenchmen and Russians" who are learning how to paint—the modern movement has spread all over.

MR. WENTWORTH: Of course, I don't pretend to be an artist myself, but I have always studied and loved pictures, and when you say "learning how to paint"—

JOE: That's exactly what it is. Learning how to paint. Learning what art is. Getting life into it instead of abstract ideas.

MR. WENTWORTH: Art? But art is beauty! Eternal beauty. You can't change art over night, like a fashion!

SILVIA: But that picture's beautiful!

JOE: Art changes as life changes. Art has always changed. If it didn't, why isn't your Japanese art just like Greek art? And Greek art like the Italian?

MR. WENTWORTH: Oh, in that way, of course. But all the great masters obey the eternal laws of beauty!

JOE: There aren't any eternal laws of beauty! There's only the eternal impulse to create. Every artist has to express himself in his own way. What you call the "eternal laws" are merely the particular expressions your own favorite painters happened to work out in their time. If they had lived in another time—

MR. WENTWORTH: A master would always be a master. There's no change possible in the vision of the soul.

SILVIA: You see, Mr. Wentworth, what I have learned these last two years from living among artists is that the painter with an original vision is always opposed by the schools. That is, at first. But when he wins out, then the schools merely take over his technique and use it as a club to put down the next creator. And so it goes.

MR. WENTWORTH: Naturally, the great artist suffers hardship. But if we once admit there are no laws, where are we? Anarchy!

JOE: The laws are contained in the impulses themselves. They come with the vision, not before it! If any one thinks this modern art is just an easy way of painting—

SILVIA: Indeed it isn't! Joe works much harder than the students who go to the schools. Of course, he doesn't paint by the clock.

MR. WENTWORTH: But the Louvre! All those beautiful pictures, those priceless treasures! What about the Louvre?

JOE: The Louvre? It's a museum.

MR. WENTWORTH: What do you mean by "it's a museum"?

JOE: I mean that it's the place to put pictures in when they are dead.

MR. WENTWORTH: Dead? A great masterpiece dead?

JOE: Of course. No man lives forever. Nobody that was ever born was useful enough to live forever. The bigger a man is the longer his influence is creative, in art and everything else, but the time always comes when his value is spent. When the world needs a new influence.

SILVIA: It's really wonderful, Mr. Wentworth, how knowing the truth about art shows one the truth about other things. When I remember what I used to believe!

MR. WENTWORTH: But see here, young man, you wouldn't do away with the Louvre, would you? Why, what would happen if these ideas were carried out....

JOE: No, I wouldn't do away with it. Why should I? If to burn it down would wake people up to life, I'd do it in a minute. But it wouldn't. They would only sanctify the superstition and make it immortal. No, leave the Louvre as it is. It's really quite useful.

MR. WENTWORTH: But good gracious! Useful?

JOE: Yes. Like history. To do away with the Louvre would be to destroy a part of history. There's no good doing that. We need history—it cranks up life—but we've got to recognize that after all it is only history, not life itself—not art.

MR. WENTWORTH: But what is art, if the Louvre isn't?

SILVIA: Don't you see, Mr. Wentworth? If you could only get for a moment into the stream of experience where Joe and the others brought me! A picture is art as long as it's alive—as long as it can give back the fresh, first-hand impulses that were put into it. After that—when life has flowed on and set up new impulses requiring a different expression—then a picture drops back upon a lower level. What Joe calls history.

JOE: Like everything else.

MR. WENTWORTH: But you put art on the same plane as invention. An improved motor car scraps the old model. But you can't improve art!

JOE: No, certainly not. We don't try to. We just do our best. We recover art.

MR. WENTWORTH: Recover it?

SILVIA: Yes—discover it all over again. It gets lost, lost in hard and fast rules or sentimentality, then a genius comes along and digs down to the buried city—creation. Art isn't like invention. It's more like religion.

MR. WENTWORTH: There you are!

JOE: There we are! Isn't there a struggle going on all the time to free religion, the spirit of religion, from hard and fast rules and from false emotions? It's exactly the same thing.

MR. WENTWORTH: Ah, but rules are necessary to maintain order. That's what I insist about art. We must have rules!

SILVIA: I know exactly what you mean, Mr. Wentworth. You mean that if fanatics tore down all the churches on the street corners, and there weren't any more Sunday morning sermons, everybody would run wild. But there again it's the same thing as with art: the man who has the spirit of the thing in him feels that the spirit itself is a far better control than heaps of stones and sermons. It's all a matter of living. Imagine asking one of the Apostles which church he went to!

MR. WENTWORTH: Wait! We are getting art mixed up with too much else. Didn't you say, Mr. Carson, that pictures died when they no longer gave out impulses of beauty?

JOE: Yes.

MR. WENTWORTH: Well! I admit there are dead pictures, too many of them, but they are the canvasses that were still-born. The masterpieces in the Louvre still give out impulses—beautiful impulses—to many of us, thank heaven!

SILVIA: But that's just it! The impulses you mean aren't those of art at all. They—

JOE: Those pictures don't give out impulses to the artist. The impulses they do give out are only the emotions that satisfy the student who has learned some rules and then sees the rules worked out. The artist produced the rules as a side issue, but you are trying to make the rules produce the artist. That's the difficulty when people as a whole lose the creative sense. They are satisfied with things at second-hand. Second-hand expressions of life, and second-hand philosophies to justify the expressions. It's a kind of conspiracy in which everybody works against everybody else. Only the few real artists in any generation break through it into the light.

SILVIA: The light of the sun!

MR. WENTWORTH: I fear we are hopelessly at odds in this question. Well, as the Romans said, there's no disputing about tastes. Every one to his own taste.

JOE: No!

MR. WENTWORTH: What do you mean?

JOE: I mean that it's a disgrace that Americans only study and only buy old masters. It's a burning shame that all they know about art is what they have been taught in books. They let their own artists starve—they make them come over here—while they bid up a Raphael like a block of shares. What good does it do Raphael? He had his day. And look how it holds back our own possible Raphaels!

MR. WENTWORTH: Raphael? Ah, you are still very young. You don't understand the attitude of the majority, Mr. Carson. Raphael is one of our great inspirers of beauty.

JOE: You mean culture!

SILVIA: Oh, it's getting quite dark. Joe, light the light.

MR. WENTWORTH: Dear me, so it is! What time is it? It must be getting late—Good gracious! I have an engagement.

SILVIA: You can't stay for a little dinner with us in the Quarter, Mr. Wentworth? Afterward we could go to one of the cafés.

MR. WENTWORTH: I'm afraid I can't, Silvia. It's been a great pleasure to meet you both, I assure you. These little differences of opinion....

SILVIA: Oh, that's all right. We argue art and religion every day, don't we, Joe? Of course, though, we do feel strongly about the young artists—the young American artists. They come over here, and then they have to burn their bridges ... and we see how wonderful America could be if they were given things to do instead of being neglected....

JOE: Here's your coat, Mr. Wentworth.

MR. WENTWORTH: Thank you. Thank you for the delicious tea, Silvia. If I weren't leaving town so soon.... Good night.

SILVIA: Good night. The stairs are rather dark.... (He goes out.)

JOE: Damn!

SILVIA: Yes, I know, Joe. It's discouraging....

JOE: Discouraging? It's immoral! Oh, these smug people who have been taught what to admire! These unborn souls who want to shut us all up in the dark! I suppose he went away thinking I put myself up higher than Raphael. Who are we painting for? They don't want it—wouldn't take it for a gift. And here we are, a poor little group, standing amazed before the glory of the sun, and painting it—for the blind!

SILVIA: Some day, Joe....

JOE: Some day—yes, when the life has oozed out of all our bright canvasses, when only the "rules" are left. And we won't be able to rise from our graves and curse them!

SILVIA: Now, Joe!

JOE: I guess I let you in for a hard time, Silvia. I wish sometimes I could really paint the kind of thing that goes with stupid people's dining rooms. They with their Long Island Louvres!

SILVIA: If you did, Joe, I'd put it in the stove. Don't think you are having all the fun of being a pioneer. It's exciting to be within a mile of it!

JOE: Good girl. Ugh! Let's go to Boudet's and have dinner. I want to get the bad taste out of my mouth!


Browse more Plays by Horace Holley