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Aria da Capo
by Edna St. Vincent Millay


The play that caught the attention of the critics on this bill, the second bill of the 1919-1920 season, was Aria da Capo by Edna St. Vincent Millay.  An unusual play structurally, a pastoral bookended with a harlequinade, it is unique in that it was perceived by most to be an anti-war statement, and yet can also be seen as an more universal portrayal of the human condition.  The play defies being set in a given time period and the playwright allows juxtapositions within the play to speak louder than the writing of any political statements could have accomplished.  The characters are portrayed as being controlled by a script not of their own making, and yet ultimately prove to be powerless to step away from it.  The play’s oblique approach actually gives its message power and its simplicity of staging was perfect for it to be premiered by the Provincetown Players.

Spurred on by an eviction of Millay and her family from their Charlton Street apartment early in the year, the poet became driven to earn money writing, even adopting the pseudonym “Nancy Boyd” so she could write fiction and essays without it affecting her reputation as a poet.  During the late summer and fall, Millay wrote some of her most famous sonnets, including “What lips my lips have kissed,” “Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare,” and “Wild Swans.”  She also completed Aria da Capo, though she had the idea for the play as early as 1916, told it to Reed in 1918 before he returned to Russia, and Dell knew she was working on it the same year.  Completed in November 1918, the play adopted the “harlequinade” tradition to open and close, using the commedia dell’arte characters of Pierrot,(1) the typically lonely melancholic poet, and Columbine, the beautiful girl.(2)  Ironically, the main character of a harlequinade, Harlequin the trickster, does not appear.  Modern painters, including Picasso and Cezanne, were depicting these characters in their work, but playwrights and authors in the twentieth century would use these historic characters more after the success of Millay’s play.  In the middle section of the play Millay emulates a pastoral, specifically a medieval shepherd’s play, using two shepherds as the characters of Thyrsis and Corydon. Thyrsis and Corydon are the names of two Sicilian shepherds depicted in an Italian myth by the Roman poet Virgil in his Seventh Eclogue, where Thyrsis loses a singing match to Corydon.(3)  The fifth character is named Cothurnus, listed by Millay as the “Masque of Tragedy,” though there is no figure in Greek mythology actually named Cothurnus, instead the word typically refers to the thick-soled laced boots worn by actors in Greek tragedies (remember the guest director’s stylistic choice in Dell’s A Long Time Ago) or refers to the stilted style of ancient tragedy.  Millay creates a character name from this second reference and Cothurnus operates much as Chance did in her Two Slatterns and a King, only more overt and active in controlling the action and moving the characters along to accomplish his task.  Once Cothurnus clears Pierrot and Columbine and their scene of privilege and angst from the stage, the character manipulates the simple and idyllic shepherds into depicting a scene in which territories are marked off, possessions are horded, and the long-time friends become enemies, filled with suspicion and greed.  When this escalates to the two killing each other, Cothurnus closes the prompt book and hides their bodies under the table, then allows Pierrot and Columbine to return and resume their scene, ending with Columbine’s words, “Pierrot, a macaroon! I cannot live without a macaroon!”(4) 

There are expressionistic moments throughout the play, precursors to what Brecht would advocate years later, when Millay stops the action with Columbine barging in to demand her hat of Cothurnus in the middle of the shepherds’ scene.  There are other interruptions and often Pierrot and Columbine’s voice are heard off-stage, layering on top of what is happening with the shepherds.  Norma Millay and Charles Ellis told Sarlos that “the realistic characterization of the shepherds stood in sharp contrast to the highly stylized performance of Columbine and Pierrot,” and this is clearly what Millay intended.(5)  Millay biographer Norman A. Britten explains the play by writing that “One must see things in terms of a circle: an audience of real people in a theater are viewing a play representing a theatre where scenes are portrayed by actors who reluctantly take unwelcome “parts” which they find to be ‘real.’”(6)

Millay’s set description for when the curtain opens is found in the opening stage directions:

A merry black and white interior.  Directly behind the footlights, and running parallel with them, is a long table, covered with a gay black and white cloth, on which is spread a banquet.  At the opposite ends of this table, seated on delicate thin-legged chairs with high backs, are Pierrot and Columbine, dressed according to tradition, excepting that this Pierrot is in lilac, and Columbine in pink.

The description causes one to remember the Zorachs’ design for Kreymborg’s Lima Beans, though there is no indication that Millay had seen this.  The use of black and white was also typical of harlequinade costumes and sets, though she changes the traditional costumes by asking for the colors.  Charles Ellis designed and executed the play’s set, using a number of panels that Millay later described as “cleverly utilized painted screens, the heights varying from six to ten feet, these being set right and left of the stage in such manner as to give the effect of depth and distance.”(7)  A photo of a rehearsal shows the screens, as does another that shows members of the crew painting the screens in the theatre’s basement.  Ellis also described that there were matching borders hung across the stage.(8)  Norma described to Millay biographer Nancy Milford that Ellis had created “black screens on which he painted a proscenium border of colored fruits and flowers, cut as though they were hanging down—very effective it was. . .”(9)

Millay directed the play, casting her sister Norma as Columbine and her friend Harrison Dowd as Pierrot.  Dowd was a Renaissance man whom Millay met soon after she arrived in the Village, an accomplished pianist and later novelist.  Ellis and Light were cast as the two shepherds, and Hugh Ferriss played Cothurnus, an architect and delineator whose renderings would soon be considered as priceless art.(10)  Ferriss would also create a parody of the play that was performed on opening night by the cast in costume upstairs as Christine’s.  A December 5 letter from James Lawyer, a married young engineer with whom Millay was having an affair, indicates that Millay herself had sewn the costumes.(11)  In a letter to sister Kathleen, Norma described Dowd’s performance as “playful, graceful” and “disenchanted” and that sister “Vincent was very good directing her play because she knew exactly what she wanted.”(12)

Given the kind of national attention Aria da Capo was to gain, the lack of New York critics that reviewed the play is quite surprising; even the New York Tribune did not cover the opening.  The lone critical review came from Woollcott in the New York Times, and he tells his readers “you should see this bitterly ironic little fantasy” and that “it would not be difficult to defend the statement that, aside from its limitations of production and performance, this is the most beautiful and most interesting play in the English language now to be seen in New York.”  Since Woollcott’s reputation was to never suffer fools lightly (one remembers his comments about Getting Unmarried in the last bill), this is no small statement from this fastidious critic.  Calling the regular audience that attended plays at the Playwright’s Theatre “comparatively cerebral” compared to those who attend more “laboriously obvious” theatre, he compares Aria da Capo to Barnes’ Three from the Earth in the last bill as being a “fairly enigmatic piece,” but that “there are a riches of meaning just a little way below the surface.”  He names the play “a study of heart-breaking tragedy” set between “the laughters of fluffy satiric comedy,” and though it might go “over the heads of the average unthinking audience,” he believed that

surely no mother from a gold-starred home, who saw the war come and go like a grotesque comet and who now hears the rattlepated merriment of her neighbors all the more distinctly because of the blank silence in her own impoverished home—surely no such mother will quite miss the point of Aria da Capo.(13)

Though Woollcott and many contemporary critics classify the play as “anti-war,” Britten sees it as “a deeper lesson,” for the playwright “chose to express what is representative and everlasting; the play has more in common with the tales of Cain and Abel and of Everyman than with most twentieth-century anti-war literature.”(14)  Writer Edmund Wilson attended the performance and wrote “I was thrilled and troubled by this little play: it was the first time I had felt Edna’s peculiar power.  There was a bitter treatment of war, and we were all ironic about war; but there was also a less common sense of the incongruity and the cruelty of life, of the precariousness of love.”(15) 

Kenton writes that “people liked Aria da Capo,” but says they might have liked even better the parody that Ferriss staged after the opening at Christine’s.  Kenton, as one remembers, had never been one for the more poetic plays and she seems to not waste any energy with this one, though it became arguably one of the three or four most popular plays ever produced by the company.  She tells that “like Suppressed Desires, this little play went immediately into most of the little theatres in the country.”(16)  Deutsch and Hanau write that “the play’s beauty, its subtle mingling of satire and lyricism, and the excellence of the production marked it immediately as the best presentation of the year.”(17)  Millay biographer Daniel Mark Epstein writes that the “headlines and breaking box office records on Macdougal Street” turned Millay “from a bohemian cult figure to a household name.”(18)  Another Millay biographer, Miriam Gurko, tells that “in the months following these early appearances of her play, the amount of Edna’s correspondence doubled.”  She quotes from a Millay letter of the time, quoting the playwright/poet as saying “I find myself suddenly famous” and that she found “the experience exciting and stimulating.”  She was being invited to give lectures and readings of her poetry and her poems began to appear “so frequently and to attract such instant response that she was soon to be called ‘America’s leading woman poet.’”(19)  Save for a revival of Dell’s Sweet and Twenty she performed in at the end of that season, Millay never again wrote a play or performed for the Provincetown Players, though she had ties to the group for many years, particularly as her sister Norma continued to be one of the Players’ most dependable actresses.

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) “Pierrot's ancestry is not so clearly Italian as the others.  Pedrolino, a mischievous, intriguing buffoon, Pagliaccio, a madcap who wore a painted hat of white wool and a garment of white linen, whose face was covered with flour, and who wore a white mask, have both been cited as types that may have contributed to the figure of Pierrot, whose name makes its first appearance in Molière play, Don Juan ou le Festin de Pierre.  Not that this dull servant of Molière's is in any sense the counterpart of the Pierrot of our day who is by turns languishing or vivacious, impish or poetic, but never doltish.  From the seventeenth century, Pierrot, his costume borrowed from the Neapolitan mask, Pulcinella, became more and more prominent on both the Italian and the French stage.  It was a certain French pantomime actor by the name of Deburau who died a few years before the middle of the nineteenth century, who gave Pierrot the prominence that he enjoys to-day and who dressed the character in the guise that he most often assumes on the modern stage.”Helen Louise Cohen, One Act Plays by Modern Authors (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1921) 77-78.

(2) In both French and Italian theater, Columbine is a beautiful girl who is often portrayed as a servant, serving girl, or lady's maid under the patronage of Pantaloon (Pantalone), though she is at times depicted instead as his daughter.  Her role usually centers around her romantic interest in Harlequin, and her costume often includes the cap and apron of a serving girl, though (unlike the other players) not a mask.

(3) Poet Matthew Arnold wrote a poem titled Thyrsis in December 1865 to commemorate his friend, the poet Arthur Hugh Clough, who died in November 1861 at the age of 42.

(4) Millay, Three Plays 44.

(5) Sarlos, Provincetown 296. 

(6) Norman Brittan, Edna St. Vincent Millay (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1967) 100.

(7) Millay, Aria da Capo

(8) Sarlos, Provincetown 295. 

(9) Nancy Milford, Savage Beauty, the Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay (New York: Random House, 2001) 183.

(10) A delineator is one who creates perspective drawings of buildings.  Ferriss was from St. Louis, Missouri, trained as an architect at Washington University and early in his career began to specialize in creating architectural renderings for other architect’s work rather than designing buildings himself.  He came to New York City in 1912, worked for the Gilbert Company, who built the Woolworth Building, and soon developed quite a reputation for his renderings, many being published.  He would soon set up his own free-lance firm and, though Ferriss never designed a single noteworthy building, after his death a colleague said he “influenced my generation of architects' more than any other man.” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Ferriss>

(11) Qtd. Milford 179.

(12) Qtd. Milford 183.

(13) Alexander Woollcott, New York Times, 14 December 1919: XX2.

(14) Britten 102.

(15) Qtd. in Milford 183.

(16) Kenton 108.  Millay Biographer Epstein writes that Aria da Capo would become so popular that “there was scarcely a weekend it was not running somewhere.  Figures available for the decade 1950-1960, thirty years after its premiere, indicate that there were 471 licensed productions—not performances—during that time” (Epstein 141).

(17) Deutsch 54.

(18) Epstein 141.

(19) Miriam Gurko, Restless Spirit, the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1962) 112-113.