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by Neith Boyce


Premiered July 15, 1915, Provincetown, MA.

Moira:  Neith Boyce
Rex:  Joe O’Brien

Setting:  A room, luxurious and gay, in delicate, bright colors. Long arched windows at the back open on a balcony flooded with moonlight, overlooking the sea. In the center of the room a long sofa piled with bright cushions.  Moira, sitting at a desk under a shaded lamp, writing busily. She is dressed in a robe of brocade with straight lines, brilliant in color. A whistle sounds under the balcony. She looks up, glances at a tiny clock on the desk, which delicately chimes twelve.(1)

Most accounts of the first performance of plays by this group in Provincetown assign the date and time as July 15, 1915 at 10pm at Hapgood and Boyce’s rented home, the Bissell Cottage at 621 Commercial Street, and often present the event as if it were something that occurred almost spontaneously.  However, Hapgood wrote to his father eight days before on July 7, 1915: “Last night read a clever one-act play to several people here and we all liked it.  We are going to act in it.  Or, rather, as there are only two characters in it, Neith and Jo [sic] O’Brien will be the actors and the rest of us spectators.”(2)  This “reading,” then, took place nine days before the July 15 performance.  Also, the letter mentions that “we all liked it,” thus a group, perhaps the “regulars,” was there at the reading.  It also had clearly been decided that night that a performance would take place with Boyce and O’Brien in the roles; the two of them did indeed play the roles on July 15.(3)  A number of accounts also give the impression that Boyce’s play just suddenly appeared, perhaps written as an after-thought to Cook’s great idea to present Suppressed Desires.  Glaspell’s account in Road could be read to imply this with her simple statement that “Neith Boyce had a play —Constancy.  We gave the two in her house one evening.”  Kenton writes “A night or two later,” referring to some kind of presentation or declaration of the finishing of a performable version of Suppressed Desires, “inspired by more talk, Neith Boyce sat down with pencil and paper and rose up with Constancy in hand.”(4) 

Since the subject of Constancy was a thinly-veiled representation of the end of the love affair between Mabel Dodge and John Reed, which took place only months before, it would have to have been recently written.  Boyce and Dodge had become close friends and confidantes in recent years and, rather than creating a satirical roman-a-clef of Dodge and Reed, as the content of the play is often described to be, Boyce follows the major thrust of most of her writing: capturing “the difficulties of creating new forms of intimacy between middle-class women and men.”(5)  Rather than just an “amusing dialogue,”(6) or “spoof,”(7) or “farce,”(8) as it has been described, this play can be seen as the story of a woman who rids herself of her dependency (or in contemporary psychological terms “co-dependency”) on a younger man whose idea of fidelity is that he “would always come back,” even after affairs with other women.(9)  She matures while he remains as before and, because he cannot understand her change, believes her to be the one “inconstant.”(10)  Sarlos judges that the play is dramatically weak because the female character’s strength “prevents dramatic conflict.”(11)  Murphy feels that “its lack of resolution is telling” because these new Modern advocates of free love “had not found a way to resolve their uneasiness around these issues.”(12)  Boyce’s own marriage with Hapgood has become more remembered than her writing because their letters, published in Intimate Warriors: Portraits of a Modern Marriage, 1899-1944, edited by Ellen Kay Trimberger, show their continual struggle with Hapgood’s male double-standard definition of fidelity and Boyce’s Victorian practice of being faithful, even if her Modern mind is constantly trying to resolve the issue by appealing to his sensibilities.  Thus, Trimberger’s statement that “Neith obviously admired Mabel’s ability to end the relationship” rings true.(13)  Lois Rudnick writes that “in their attempt to allow each other to experience life and love without jealousy or possessiveness,” Boyce and Hapgood continued to struggle away because they always hoped “that their own lives could exemplify the kind of behavior that they promoted in the movements for social and economic justice and equality.”(14)

The famed July 15 performance took place on the oceanside veranda of Boyce and Hapgood’s rented cottage.  Kenton reports that the house had “a great living room large enough to hold a few players and a fair audience.”  Rehearsals had been held “on the beach and in back yards.”(15)  Constancy required a sea set: Boyce transplanted Dodge’s Florence villa where Reed and Dodge had stayed to a house by the sea.  The famous silk “ladder” that Reed had climbed up to Dodge’s bedroom from his own was replaced in the play with a rope ladder down to the sea that the female character Moira has symbolically removed, thus requiring the male character Rex to enter through the door.  Robert Edmond Jones performed duties the night similar to those he’d become famous for: turning unusual spaces into theatrical settings.  He used the wide doors that opened onto the veranda into a kind of proscenium arch, the actors performing just beyond it with the “sea at high tide the backdrop and the sound of its waves was its orchestra, while Long Point Light at the tip of Cape Cod carried the eye ‘beyond.’”(16)  Kenton described the setting as “the backdrop of the moving ocean with its anchored ships and twinkling lights.”(17)  O’Brien, as Rex, began the play by whistling from down below on the beach and then walking around and up to the veranda for his entrance.(18)  Kenton describes the set pieces for the play as “a long low divan heaped with bright pillows,” and “two shaded lamps, one on either side of the doorway” as the lighting.(19)  Glaspell wrote that Jones “liked doing it, because we had no lighting equipment, but just put a candle here and a lamp there.”(20)  Deutch and Hanau report that “The Hapgood house was crowded for that first performance . . .”(21) Boyce wrote to her father-in-law two days after the performance:

You’ll be amused to hear that I made my first appearance on the stage Thursday night!  I have been stirring up the people here to write and act some short plays.  We began the season with one of mine.  Bobby Jones staged it on our veranda.  The colors were orange and yellow against the sea.  We gave it at 10 o’clock at night and really it was lovely—the scene, I mean.  I have been mightily complimented on my acting!!!(22)

Boyce does not mention Cook in the act of “stirring up” others to write plays.  This does not refute Cook’s role, but at the minimum shows a stronger involvement on the part of Boyce that summer than the mythology has ever acknowledged. 

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) Neith Boyce, “Constancy,” 1915, the Cultural Moment, ed. Adele Heller and Lois Rudnick (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers U Press, 1991)273.

(2) Hutchins Hapgood, letter to Charles Hapgood, 7 July 1915. Yale Theatre Collection.

(3) It also implies that perhaps Hapgood took the male part at the reading. 

(4) Kenton 15.

(5) Ellen Kay Trimberger, “The New Woman and the New Sexuality,” 1915, the Cultural Moment, ed. Adele Heller and Lois Rudnick (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers U Press, 1991).

(6) Sarlos, Jig Cook 14.

(7) Egan 3.

(8) Egan 123.

(9) Boyce, “Constancy” 278.

(10) Boyce, “Constancy”280.

(11) Sarlos, Jig Cook 15.

(12) Murphy, Provincetown Players 2/6.

(13) Trimberger, “New Woman” 110.

(14) Taos, a Memory, Miriam Hapgood DeWitt (Albuquerque: U of New Mexico Press, 1992)xiii.  This is from the introduction to the Hapgoods’ daughter Miriam’s memoir of her time in Taos with Mabel Dodge.

(15) Kenton 16.

(16) Kenton 16.

(17) Kenton 170.

(18) Kenton incorrectly identifies Hapgood as the male actor in the performance (16).  If the dynamics between Vorse and Dodge that Hapgood discusses were true, having Vorse’s husband play the role symbolic of Dodge’s former lover is a very interesting choice. 

(19) Kenton 16.

(20) Glaspell, Road 251.

(21) Helen Deutsch and Stella Hanau, The Provincetown: A Story of the Theatre (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1931) 8.

(22) Neith Boyce, letter to Charles Hapgood, Sr. 17 July 1915. qtd. in Ben-Zvi, Glaspell 160.