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A Long Time Ago

by Floyd Dell


Though Dell had resigned from the Executive Committee early in the Players' first New York season, his involvement in the Players seems to have continued.  His work editing The Masses was his first priority and, when the Players scheduled his play A Long Time Ago for the fifth bill, he gave over the producing duties for the play to someone else, recalling the generally positive experience he’d had in the fall doing the same with E. J. Ballantine and King Arthur’s Socks.  The person put in charge was Duncan MacDougal, someone that Kenton says offered “with his background of work with the Irish Players to direct a play for us”(1) and whom Sarlos describes as a “Scottish-Australian Actor.”(2)  Bryant reveals in a letter to Reed about MacDougal that “Nord always hated him, and Teddy has great contempt for him and Ida doesn’t like him and they won’t have him in the group . . . even Susan wants to kick him out,” and that while directing, MacDougal “wants to do it his own way, not Ida’s or Teddy’s,” thus a reason for their feelings.(3)  Recalling the experience many years later, Dell wrote, “When I was too busy to stage-manage a play of mine, he [Cook] turned it over to some new enthusiast with lunatic ideas, who put the actors on stilts, so that nothing could be heard except clump, thump, pump.”(4)  Kenton explains that the “stilts” that Dell describes were really “wooden clogs which raised the actors eight or ten inches above natural height,” sounding very much like cothornous that were used by ancient Greek actors in order to look taller and more impressive.  In fact, she acknowledges that “something ‘Greek’ in this appealed to Jig,” but this did not appease Dell at the dress rehearsal when he saw the actors on their clogs for the first time.  Adding to Dell’s anger, MacDougal had costumed the five characters—The Old Woman, The Fool, The Queen, The Sailor and The Prince—as “figures in a card game,” though given the play’s subtitle, “A Toyland Phantasy,” Sarlos feels Dell’s anger “unjustified.”(5)  Dell’s “surprise was complete.  His wrath likewise,” reports Kenton, and when he complained he’d been ignored in the production, the company argued that he’d given MacDougal “blanket permission” to do what they wanted with the play.  Regardless of his opposition, Dell’s “complaint came too late” and the play in performance “brought many a jolly laugh from the audience, unfortunately in places that embarrassed the actors.”(6)

A Long Time Ago had been written while Dell was still in Chicago in 1913, just prior to his moving to New York, and his biographer Clayton claims it was written “largely out of frustration over his unhappy courtship with Elaine Hyman, conducted as she was simultaneously having an affair with author Theodore Dreiser.”(7)  The play opens in the courtyard of a palace with a Queen who has fallen in love with a Prince that arrived in town two days before, but has told her he only stays anywhere for three days and moves on.  This exposition is given by an Old Woman, who is the Queen’s nurse, to The Fool, who is trying to write a song about love “that is too high for pride and too deep for shame.”(8)  The Old Woman comments that the Prince is “too wise to be held by such toys as love,” and reveals herself to long for the “good old days” when a man would stand by his commitment to a King regardless of other things that might get their attention.  The Prince does leave, though he confesses his confusion and his hesitation is obvious, particularly after the Queen begs him to stay.  The Queen commiserates with the Fool, who makes her believe he understands the plight of her heart. 

When a Sailor from the Prince’s crew has missed the boat and reappears, the Queen places poison in his drink and he dies, fulfilling her curiosity about what it would feel like to kill a man, with the result bringing her heart emptiness.  The Fool tells her the old saying that “three kisses bestowed by a queen upon a fool will make a hero of him.”  When she tries out the truth of this on the Fool, her first kiss causes him to take on dignity and he picks up the dead sailor’s sword.  The Old Woman reports to the Queen that the Prince’s boat is returning to shore and the Queen instructs her to give orders that any men from the boat should be captured and brought to her.  After her second kiss and the Fool becomes more “like a king,” she questions his silence and he responds “What I have to say will be with my sword, and your enemies will be the ones to hear it.”  The Queen becomes sorry she’s turned him into a hero now, because “all a hero can do is fight.  That is a stupid thing.”(9)  The bound Prince is then brought into her, but the Fool cuts his bonds, citing he’s a brave man and shouldn’t be treated thus.  The Prince confesses he has given up his journey and come back to her because “I know that the only thing that is real in all the world is love,” but the Queen tells him he is too late and that she has forgotten him already.  After inciting jealousy by giving The Fool her third kiss, the Fool and the Prince go offstage to fight, and the Queen tells the Old Woman that “I tortured him and denied him, and sent him out to die,” to which she responds, “It is well enough.  Death is among us again, and the old times have come back.”(10)  The play ends with the Queen realizing she has to tell her creation, The Fool, what work he must do, and sends him to fight and pillage their neighboring kingdom.  After being left alone in her courtyard, she goes and kisses the dead Prince and “her face softens,” but as she sits down, “her face becomes hard again,” with the stage directions “A sound of trumpets and shouting, the menacing prelude of war, is heard outside.”(11) 

Clayton believes that Dell was “probably uneasy with the play to begin with, it being a decidedly lugubrious tragedy that was very likely patterned on Yeat’s short tragedies.”  Clayton also conjectures that the director might have put the actors on stilts, “including the massive Jig Cook and the preternaturally serious Ida Rauh,” to “emphasize the artificiality of their relations.”(12)  Another possible reason for using a Greek performance tradition like wearing cothurni, in this case creating a performance affectation, is the resonance of the play's plot to the myth of Dido and Aeneas, which Cook and Macdougal certainly would have recognized. This ancient story tells of the queen of Carthage giving refuge to the Trojan hero and his men. Dido and Aeneas fall in love and she pledges all she owns to him if he will simply love her, only to have him return to the sea to continue his journey. Certainly the play also had some resonance with the war in Europe and the ever-looming question of whether the United States would become involved.  Cook played The Sailor and Macdougal cast himself as The Fool, and both perform songs set to Dell’s original verse in the play’s center.  Rauh played The Queen, Pendleton King played The Prince and Miriam Kiper played The Old Woman.(13)  The published version of the play is dedicated “To Bror Nordfeldt,” though no reason why is given.(14)  Ultimately, Dell’s disgust with the production caused him to resign completely from the Players, “vowing not to offer the company the two unproduced comedies he had written for them.”(15)  Later he would write of his disgusted amazement at Cook, with whom he’d had a complicated relationship since his youth working on his farm in Iowa: “George tolerated everybody and believed in everybody and egregiously exploited everybody and everybody loved him.  He was the only one, it would seem, who could have presided over this chaos and kept it from spontaneous combustion.”(16)  With Dell’s resignation, and Reed and Bryant’s to come a month later, three of the original five Executive Board had left the Players within its first four months in New York.

© Jeff Kennedy 2007.

(1) Kenton 49.

(2) Sarlos, Provincetown 116.

(3) Louise Bryant, letter to John Reed, 2 December 1916, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

(4) Dell, Homecoming 266.

(5) Sarlos, Provincetown 119.  This statement was made in an interview in 1963 Dell gave with Sarlos.

(6) Kenton 49.

(7) Clayton 144.  Hyman’s stage name was Kirah Markham.

(8) Dell, King 106.

(9) Dell, King 123.

(10) Dell, King 127.

(11) Dell, King 128.

(12) Clayton 145.

(13) Kiper had worked and toured with the Chicago Little Theatre, whose director Browne claimed she had a “golden” voice (Browne 202) and she performed in Medea, the Chicago troupe’s first New York production.  Her sister, Florence, would later have a play produced by the Provincetown Players.  

(14) Dell, King 101.

(15) Clayton 144.

(16) Dell, Homecoming 266.