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The Dreamy Kid

by Eugene O'Neill


The new 1919-20 season began on October 31, 1919 as promised and opened with a play by O’Neill, as had been the tradition.  However, rather than a new play written for the opening, the ”Season of Youth,” so called because Cook took a year's sabbatical to write and abdicated leadership of the Players to the younger James Light, opened with an O’Neill play that had been written for the year prior but rejected because Cook felt they needed a “stronger” play; O’Neill had complied by writing Where the Cross is Made.  O’Neill was now writing full-length plays and The Dreamy Kid was one of the last one-acts he would write until Hughie in 1942, so if the company wanted a new O’Neill one-act, this would have to be it.  The play began when O’Neill’s imagination was caught by a story of a black gangster named Dreamy that Hell Hole-friend Joe Smith told him.  O’Neill initially began to write the idea as a short story in the summer of 1918 and, after writing a page, typed a letter to Lee Foster Hartman of Harper's Magazine, dated July 6, 1918, regarding the submission of the story for possible publication.(1)  Boulton tells that it started as a short story because O’Neill felt “he could better emphasize . . . the psychological split in the young Negro,” writing inner dialogue from inside his mind.  However, the desire of the Players for a new play, as well as “the dramatist in him” overcoming “the psychological aspect of the story,” caused him to begin writing it as a play.(2)  After it was finished, O’Neill read the play to the Cooks one night and there was “enthusiasm” for it, but later this turned to doubt, Boulton not remembering if it was because they felt the play wasn’t as good as his others or “if there was some difficulty in regard to the Negro cast.”(3)

The Dreamy Kid tells the story of a Negro gangster named Dreamy who has killed a white man the night before, but whose grandmother is dying and he risks coming to see her rather than live with a curse on his life.  The play opens with his grandmother, Mammy Saunders, in her death bed and asking her daughter Ceely Ann where Dreamy is.  Ceely Ann has put the word out and assures her he’ll come.  Irene, one of Dreamy’s girlfriends, pushes her way into the room and demands she speak to him right away.  When she realizes he’s not there, Irene tells Ceely that if Dreamy shows up there, “it’s good-bye to de Dreamy,” and he should “git out quick and hide, he don’t wanter git pinched.”(4)  Dreamy does show up, clearly afraid he’s been followed or is being watched, and carrying a revolver.  When Mammy sees Dreamy, she declares she “ain’t skeered no mo’,” and Ceely leaves to go home, saying she’ll return soon.(5)  Irene comes back and tells Dreamy she’s seen the men looking for him across the street and tries to get him to leave that minute.  When he tells Mammy he’s going to leave for “jest for a moment,” she tells him “Don’ you move one step out er yere or yo’ll be sorry, Dreamy.”  She tells him if he leaves “yo’ ain’t gwine git no bit er luck s’long’s you’ live, I tells yo’ dat!”(6)  Once he decides he can’t leave, he forces Irene to go, though she initially resists.  As he begins to barricade himself in the room, Mammy tells Dreamy how he got his name, how she gave it to him when he was a baby, “An yo’ was always—a-lookin’—an’ a-thinkin’ ter yo’se’f—an’ yo big eyes jest a-dreamin’ an’ a-dreamin’. . .”(7)  While she’s talking, Dreamy has been simultaneously muttering how they aren’t going to take him alive, and that he’s sure they’re sneaking up the stairs at that moment.  When Mammy’s afraid he’s left again, he comes to the bed and takes her hand and she asks him to kneel down and pray for her, which he does, but first he goes and gets his revolver.  Sounds of steps begin to come from the hallway and Dreamy declares “Dey don’t git de Dreamy! Not while he’s ‘live! Lawd Jesus, no suh!”  Mammy, thinking his praying, says “Dat’s right—yo’ pray—Lawd Jesus—Lawd Jesus” and we hear more sounds of movement in the hallway as the play ends.(8)

O’Neill had written dark-skinned women of the Caribbean into The Moon of the Caribbees, but this was his first time to write a play in which all the characters were African American.  Bogard calls the dialect O’Neill wrote for the characters a crude experimentation toward the “authentic language” he later uses in The Emperor Jones.  Sheaffer tells that O’Neill had originally written a white prostitute as Dreamy’s girlfriend Irene, but “since this would have added a distracting element to the story,” he changed her to a black character.(9)  Though the current Harlem Renaissance was creating a surge of literary work by African American writers, including plays, these were relegated to theatres out of the mainstream, mostly in Harlem and certainly no possibility of Broadway.  Musical entertainments were another story, however, and that year Maid of Harlem, an all-black musical starring Fats Waller, Mamie Smith, Johnny Dunn, and Perry Bradford, was a hit at the Lincoln Theatre.  Ironically, just days after the opening of The Dreamy Kid, Al Jolson sang for the first time the Gershwin song “Swanee” that would become his signature number, performing it in blackface makeup.  In plays, a white actor “blacking up” when playing a Negro character was typical theatre practice.  A momentous occasion in the spring of 1917 was the use of an all-black cast on Broadway in an evening of three one-act plays that dealt with black themes by white playwright Ridgely Torrence.  Opening on April 5, 1917 in the seldom-used Garden Theatre and directed by Robert Edmond Jones, the plays incurred the ire of many critics because the actors were not up to their standards for Broadway and the production closed after three weeks.  The Dreamy Kid was the next occurrence of using all black actors in a play produced by a “white” theatre company.

Ida Rauh, now one of the two directors of the new season of the Players, decided that she would direct The Dreamy Kid once it was placed on the bill.  O’Neill couldn’t possibly have wanted or asked Rauh to direct given all the badgering and argument he’d encountered with her the year before when she directed his Where the Cross is Made.  Regardless, once at the helm, Rauh insisted on having African-American actors play all of the roles.  In Moon, the black women had been played by white actresses in blackface and she didn’t want that for this play.  Why Rauh wanted an all-black cast, whether it was her own sense of racial equality or simply a way to make unique a lesser O’Neill play, is not on record.  Regardless, Rauh went to Harlem and searched “the YMCA, the library, the churches, and everywhere else. . .” to find her four actors for the play.  Harold Simmelkjaer—“despite the Dutch name, is a negro” said James Weldon Johnson (10)—played the role of Dreamy (“Abe”), Ruth Anderson played Mammy, Leathe Colvert played Ceely Ann, and Margaret Rhodes played Irene.(11)  Rebecca Drucker in the Tribune said the casting “illumines in a great many ways the psychological values of the piece.”(12) Alexander Woollcott for the Times mentions the use of an all-black cast but called them “amateurs mostly,” consistent with the production, which was “on the quasi-amateur level and pretends to no more.”  He compares their acting favorably to the “preposterous production” of the Torrence plays mentioned earlier.(13)  Cheryl Black rightly makes the point that Rauh should be given her due for her casting of The Dreamy King as making a “singularly influential contribution to American theatre history.” (14)

Kenton states that not only did the play feature the “innovation” of an all-black cast, but also “Glenn Coleman came in to do the set of their play.”(15)  Coleman, a painter originally from Springfield, Ohio, was considered one of the younger artists in the Ash Can movement, having studied with Robert Henri at the New York School of Art.  Though very informal, Coleman and fellow artists Arnold Friedman and Jules Golz put together the first independent art show ever held in America in 1908.  Specializing in street scenes of New York, particularly of sites in the Village, his “portraits of mean streets” were “more ironical and poignantly melancholy.”(16)  He designed covers for the Masses, but left the magazine in the “artists revolt” when a few of the artists wanted no policy restrictions for contributing their work.  He would go on in 1928 to win the Carnegie Institute Award, considered during that time the highest award to be given an American artist.  Unfortunately there are no known photos or drawing plans of the set for this production. 
Drucker calls the play by O’Neill “as fine a thing as he has ever done.”(17)  Woollcott writes that it’s a “good” play by the “oncoming” O’Neill, and that “it is interesting too how . . . the author . . . induces your complete sympathy and pity for a conventionally abhorrent character.”(18) O’Neill was not there for the opening, as he was in Provincetown; his son Shane was born the night before.  He had been on the Cape for most of the spring and all of the summer, anxiously awaiting news of the production of his play Beyond the Horizon, also waiting to see if his new play Chris Christopherson would be optioned.  He moved into the Peaked Hill Life Saving Station, the same house that is the setting for Glaspell’s The Outside, which his father purchased for him as a gift.  He would respond to a friend’s congratulations for The Dreamy Kid by saying “Of course, I by no means rate it among my best one-act plays for genuine merit, but I did think it would prove theatrically effective and go over with a bang to the audience.”(19)  By November 12, 1919, O’Neill had received interest to present the play on vaudeville by William L. Lykens of the New York Theatre Building, to which O’Neill responded favorably, but the production never materialized. 

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) Eugene O’Neill, letter to Lee Foster Hartman, 6 July 1918. Theatre Collection, Museum of the City of New York.

(2) Boulton 160.

(3) Boulton 164.

(4) O’Neill, Complete 679.

(5) O’Neill, Complete 683.

(6) O’Neill, Complete 688.

(7) O’Neill, Complete 690.

(8) O’Neill, Complete 691.

(9) Sheaffer, Playwright 430.

(10) Johnson, Black Manhattan 183.

(11) Harold Simmelkjaer would continue as an actor, playing a role in The Niche for the Colored Players’ Guild, and then playing in Taboo on Broadway in 1922.  He may have also become a clerk in the New York Supreme Court; a man by that exact non-typical name was part of a survey conducted about black amalgamation in the 20s. 

(12) Drucker, New York Tribune, 16 November 1919, col. 2: 7

(13) Woollcott, Alexander. “Second Thoughts on First Night.”  New York Times, 9 November 1919: XX2.

(14) Black, Women 109.

(15) Kenton 105.

(16) John I. H. Baur, American Art of Our Century (New York: Praeger, 1961) 27.

(17) Rebecca Drucker, New York Tribune, 16 November 1919, col 2: 7

(18) Alexander Woollcott, “Second Thoughts on First Night,” New York Times, 9 November 1919: XX2.

(19) Gelb, O’Neill 381.