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Cocaine

by Pendleton King


 

The second play on the eighth bill of the Players first New York season (1916-17) was Cocaine, the first and only play the Players performed by Pendleton King, but a play for which they had much affection.  King seems to appear on the Village scene sometime in the fall of 1916, his name first appearing in the cast list of the play Altruism performed by the Washington Square Players that opened on November 13, 1916.  Cocaine was read to the Provincetown Players, one assumes by King, at the November 22 meeting and was voted on at the December 3 meeting, “saved from rejection at this time only by the absentee votes of the Hapgoods.”  The play was not scheduled until March 1917’s Eighth Bill, but King began to perform as an actor with the Players.  Very little is written about him by any involved with the Players; he was about twenty-seven or twenty-eight years old and was given younger roles in the plays in which he was cast: The Prince in Dell’s A Long Time Ago, The Tragedian in Pinski’s The Dollar, and The First Barbarian (German Soldier) in Wellman’s Barbarians. 

Born John Pendleton King II on July 9, 1889, he was the son of Henry Barclay King of Augusta, Georgia, and the grandson of former Georgia Senator, railroad builder and banker John Pendleton King, for whom he was named.  Known as “Pendleton,” he grew up on the family’s estate, called Sand Hill, in Augusta, GA.  Moise, who described her first evening in the Village as spent with King eating scrambled eggs in his apartment in Milligan Place sharing one knife between them, later learned “that Pen had a valet.”(1)  One wonders if King kept as a secret from those in the Village what wealth his family had, since it is never mentioned.  After roles in The People, both in the Eighth and Ninth Bills that season (and at least one appearance with The Morningside Players, a group connected with Columbia University), King disappears from the Players’ history, other than a mention that he was “drafted immediately” once the U.S. entered the war.  Kenton wrote that he was a “playwright of promise whose playwriting [was] interrupted by the war.”(2)  King became an Army Liasion Officer, a First Lieutenant of the 26th Infantry Division in Paris, France, during World War I and resigned from the Army in April 1919, returning home to Augusta.  About three weeks later, after attempting to rescue two negro women who were drowning in the family pond, King developed pneumonia and died a week later on May 28, 1919.  Pendleton King Park memorializes him to this day, King’s parents having donated the land of their estate to the City of Augusta.(3)  One wonders if the character “The Boy from Georgia” in Glaspell’s play The People, performed on the same bill as King’s Cocaine, is based on King; the character reveals that “perhaps I’d better telegraph father.  You see, the folks don’t know where I am.  I just came.”(4)

King’s upper class upbringing combined with his brief residence in the Village makes his authorship of Cocaine a rather surprising feat.  The play has only two characters: Joe, a 24-year old washed-up prizefighter; and Nora, a 30-year old prostitute finding it difficult to attract men as tricks.  Both are addicted to cocaine and are living together in an attic flat on their last dime in the Village.  They haven’t had any “stuff” for four days.  To that end, Joe brings up that he’s willing to turn tricks himself and wants to be able to contribute.  The landlady, who’s made it clear she wants Joe, has told him they’re going to be evicted, but that he can make it all right if he’ll sleep with her.  But Nora won’t hear of it, telling Joe he’s “the only thing I’ve got left in the world” and that she “wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole” if he slept with the landlady.(5)  Her suggestion is that they’ve had a great life, there’s no way out of their situation, and they should just turn on the gas and end it all.  Joe initially resists, saying “It ain’t right to kill yourself,” but she challenges him by asking if he’s scared, noting that he’s “pretty bad off” and asks “what will become of you without me to take care of you?”(6)  Finally he relents, telling her “I’ll show you whether I’m scared” and she turns on the gas.(7)  They lie down on the bed, turn the lights out, and the actors play the remaining scene in the dark.  In an ironic twist, the gas meter has run out and they don’t have even a quarter to turn it on.  Joe, somewhat relieved, opens the window, ending the play by saying “Gee, it’s daylight.”(8)

Critic Heywood Broun wrote that the “the form of this one-act tragedy is good,” and that it is “in the main well written, and much of it sounds like true talk.  Some of it sounds too true.”  Since he doesn’t qualify his statement, one ventures it to mean that the dialogue is not in any way poetic but realistic to a fault.  Less concerned with reaction to the play’s morality, he instead states that the play “distorts emphasis” and produced “nervous laughter,” even from an audience used to less mainstream work.  Constance D’Arcy Mackay wrote later that year that the play “was powerful though repulsive.”(9)  Deutsch and Hanau write that the play “stands out as a beautifully rounded bit of irony,” and that it “is saved from being an unintentional burlesque on bohemian melancholy by the delicacy of the author’s treatment and by the final incident. . .”(10)  Kenton describes the play as having “no great novelty in plot,” but that it “had atmosphere, real characterization, true talk, and in the dreariest of back rooms Ida Rauh and Eugene Lincoln played the parts of harlot and pimp with spirit and brilliance.”(11)  Broun states that the two actors “do well” in their parts.(12)  Kenneth Macgowan attended the bill, his only time to see the Players at 139 Macdougal, and later wrote that the play was a “vivid memory—the truth of the acting and the truth of the play.”(13)  Margaret Wycherly, like Frederic Burt was for The Prodigal Son on the same bill, was brought in as a guest director for Cocaine.  A British born actress, she trained with Richard Mansfield when she came to the US, debuted on Broadway in 1905, and continued there with a string of well-reviewed performances.  She married playwright and director Bayard Veiller and performed in many of his plays, including The Primrose Path (1907)and The Fight (1912), which was actually stopped by the police and the producers taken to court because one act was set in a brothel and it exposed the “viciousness of a United State Senator.”(14)  Veiller became famous for his tightly-written melodramas that were known as “crime and crook plays,”(15) and in November 1916, Wycherly became a bona fide star with her appearance in The Thirteenth Chair, a play by Veiller with the part of an Irish medium written specifically for her.(16)  Wycherly had been an advocate for women’s suffrage and was a member of Village women’s club Heterodoxy, putting her in touch on a consistent basis with many of the female members of the Players like Glaspell, Rauh and Kenton; she most likely was invited by one of them to direct for the company.  The set for Cocaine, an attic bedroom in the Village, was created by Ira Remsen and Carroll Berry.  Remsen was a painter who trained in Paris and migrated to the Village on his return.  His father was Dr. Ira Remsen, the most famous chemist of the 19th Century, who became the second president of John Hopkins University and was the co-discoverer of saccharin.  Carroll Thayer Berry was a painter who married Allena “Erick” Champlin in 1916 (who was later known as Erick Berry and was a famed children’s book illustrator).(17)

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) Nina Moise, letter to Edna Kenton, 16 October 1933, Fales Collection, Bobst Library, New York University.

(2) Kenton 74.

(3) An interesting King family legend concerned a huge white camellia that reached to the second floor of the house that bloomed beautifully each year, but was said to blossom “profusely when any family tragedy was imminent.”  The camellia was apparently destroyed in a fire that gutted the family mansion while King was in Europe during the war, but reappeared after the fire, in the place it had always been, “and blossomed profusely in the Spring just before Young Pendleton’s death.”  King’s parents abandoned plans to rebuild their mansion on Sand Hill after Pendleton’s death, living as recluses in a refurbished caretaker’s cottage on the grounds.  Instead they had several houses built for veterans of Pendleton’s Army Division and/or their families who were in need.  The area was called Pendleton Camp and next to it is now Pendleton King Cerebral Palsy Park, with a pool and playground equipment for the use of those stricken with the disease.  His father changed his will after Pendleton’s death and donated the 64 acres of their estate to the city as a memorial to his son with the intention that it be used as a bird and animal sanctuary.  The beautiful site has now been restored and is maintained by the city, known by all in Augusta as Pendleton King Park. http://www.augustaga.gov/departments/trees_landscaping/pendleton_history.asp>

(4) Glaspell, Plays 55.

(5) Pendleton King, “Cocaine,” Provincetown Plays, eds.George Cram Cook and Frank Shay (Cincinnati, Stewart Kidd Co., 1921) 86.

(6) King, “Cocaine”89-90.

(7) King, “Cocaine”91.

(8) King, “Cocaine”94.

(9) MacKay, Little Theatre 52.

(10) Deutsch 25.

(11) Kenton 54.

(12) Heywood Broun, New York Tribune, 18 March 1917, part IV, col. 2: 3.

(13) Deutsch, vii.

(14) Edmond Gagey, Revolution in American Drama (New York: Columbia University Press, 1947) 20.

(15) Cagey 13.

(16) She would later appear in two film versions of the play to equal acclaim.

(17) Erick Berry had studied at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, potentially knowing Charles Demuth and/or Rita Wellman and this could have been his connection to the Players.