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The Eternal Quadrangle

by John Reed


John Reed wrote a short set of notes that he intended for the audience to read prior to the start of the Third Bill’s first play during the Summer of 1916 on the night of August 8 (1):

We call the attention of the audience to the fact that this is the most elaborate set ever attempted on any stage . . . of this size . . . The décor was designed by Mr. Ballantine and painted by Mr. Nordfeldt and tacked up by Mr. Cook.  Books loaded by the P.P.L.  Walls and Ceiling by the New York Store.  Rugs by Marsden Hartley.(2)

Reed writes with his tongue firmly placed in cheek as he describes the suprisingly elaborate set that was created for his play The Eternal Quadrangle, knowing that the audience was used to more modest sets from the Provincetown Players thus far.  He gives credit to the lenders of the costumes, and then writes, “The audience is earnestly requested to remain for the second play which is respectable,”(3) referring to Constancy, a remount of Neith Boyce’s play based on the break-up of his relationship with Mabel Dodge and did not throw a very positive light on Reed.  Reed shows his playful and good-sport attitude by requesting the audience to stay for the play he he so labeled.  This also gave a clue to the comical and sarcastic tone of his new play, The Eternal Quadrangle, subtitled “Adapted from the Wierner-Schnitzler.”(4)  This sub-title is a reference to Arthur Schnitzler, a Jewish-Austrian playwright known for his controversial novels and plays, of which Schnitzler preferred the shorter one-act form, and whose works famously exposed sexual double standards.  His most popular play, La Ronde, was immediately banned in 1903 when published in Berlin, and later the Nazis started riots at its public readings; even when it was finally produced for the stage in 1920, it caused a national scandal.(5) 

The Eternal Quadrangle
is set in the New York Fifth Avenue drawing room of wealthy businessman Robert Fortesque.  In a clearly farcical scenario, Fortesque has called upon Freddie Temple, the most recent lover of his wife Margot, and finds out they have broken off their affair, which does not please Fortesque.  Margot arrives and Fortesque tells Temple he’s not mad because they had the affair, but because Temple wasn’t “man enough to hold her.”  Estelle the maid is called in by Fortesque to analyze why the two have broken up, which she offers as “simply undeveloped powers of selection. Adolescent whims, that’s all.”  Fortesque is now worried how he’s going to get any work done with her “concentrating her affections on [him].”(6)  He recounts her other affairs: with one poet kept in the attic for three months who was “always late to meals” and “never cleaned his nails; another with a painter who “did murals all over the dining room” and then stole Robert’s watch; and several others, those with “nasty little magazines” and “pornographic little plays” that she got her husband to back financially.(7)  He reminds Margot that he’s not her lover, he’s her husband and that she must find another lover to be the object of her attention.  Fortesque wonders if their butler, Archibald, might not be a good candidate, and Temple suddenly recognizes that Archibald is really Vladimir, the Fancy-Ice Skating champion of the world, known as the “Vernon Castle of skating.”  Archibald admits it’s true and that he’s taken the butler position to “get away from the public” and to have a “quiet place” to create a “new skit for the Winter Garden.”(8)  It’s then revealed that Estelle, the maid, is actually Archibald’s wife, who thinks the arrangement of her husband and Margot should “suit her perfectly” because “He’s shallow, clever with a sort of Broadway cleverness, rough with women, and has a kind of barbaric rhythm about him like ragtime.”(9)  Estelle is willing to give him to the affair because she “married him to educate him,” though she admits she’s failed.(10)  This sets up the women’s perspective in contrast to the men’s, with Margot claiming that “most men are like putty in our hands” and Estelle pronouncing “Change for the sake of change interests me no more than evolution does. It is for us Superwomen to make men what they will be.”(11)  Temple responds that he wishes he had someone to “improve” him, to which Estelle offers to take up the challenge.  With all seeming to be right now, Fortesque rushes out to make a meeting, returning for a last moment to say to the two couples, “What are you wasting time for? My back’s turned,” ending the play with the couples falling into each other’s arms.(12)

Reed’s play is almost completely unknown and not even mentioned by a number of his biographers, most likely because it wasn’t published until recently and wasn’t produced again after this one Provincetown performance.(13)   The play has been attributed to a number of influences, or accused of being a parody of different popular plays and/or situations.  Reed biographer Hicks called it a “burlesque of the ‘triangle’ plays of Broadway with incidental comments on love and the institution of marriage.”(14)  Hicks and many others also call Reed’s play a “Shavian” comedy that addresses free love and its effect on marriage.  Not only did Shaw’s Major Barbara open that season in its first performance in the United States, but Reed had previously written a play in 1913, titled Enter Dibble, that purposefully emulated Shaw’s style.  Encouraged by the Washington Square Players producing his play Moondown, Reed revised Enter Dibble in February of 1915, and a friend at Metropolitan magazine sent it to the British director Harley Granville-Barker, who called it “extremely alive, but derivative and technically weak.”(15)  At one point in Quadrangle, the maid Estelle says “I’ve read my Bernard Shaw, and I know that servants always have the wildest times,” and her “Superwomen” line is an obvious reference to Shaw’s Man and Superman.(16)  Like Shaw’s plays, Reed’s characters engage in a polemical debate about love and marriage.  While some critics have also likened Reed’s play to Oscar Wilde’s writing, particularly the ending and tone in his The Importance of Being Earnest, Shaw’s influence is clear, even if just in the style of writing and topic to be parodied.  With references to Schnitzler, Shaw and perhaps Wilde, as well as a quick reference in the play to Havelock Ellis, author of Studies in the Psychology of Sex (which Ozieblo tells us “revolutionized attitudes to sex”(17)), Reed parodies the leading theatrical exponents on the lifestyles of free love and marriage, of which Reed himself was clearly familiar. 

Hicks reports the play was hastily written “to fit the needs of the Players,”(18) and many have assumed it was written as a response to Bryant’s ongoing affair that summer with O’Neill.  Sarlos and Black write that the play “was a gamely comic confrontation of his own complex domestic relationship with Louise Bryant.”(19)  However, Murphy conjectures, and I completely concur, that the situations and characters in the play are a much clearer depiction of Reed’s relationship with Mabel Dodge, which had ended the year before.(20)  The character of Margot is described as an extremely romantic woman who clings to her lovers, and as someone who is completely influenced by fads.  Temple describes “Secret letters! Clandestine meetings!” and his being made to “climb up the side of the house on a grape-vine”; these are all direct references to infamous elements of the Reed-Mabel Dodge affair.(21)  Fortesque, the rich husband who just wants to be left alone to tend to his stocks, can easily be seen as Edwin Dodge, to whom Mabel was married until their divorce was final that July.  When Temple reveals, “I wish someone would love me to improve me. It’s my only chance of being anything,” one immediately thinks of Mabel’s own proclamations with respect to artist Maurice Sterne, with whom she was having an affair that summer.(22)  This makes Reed’s pre-show statement to the audience about remaining for the next play even more comic, knowing Constancy was also about Dodge and himself.  One is also struck by how often Dodge has been a “character” in these early plays, with “appearances” in Constancy, Change Your Style, and The Eternal Quadrangle.  However, though infamous for her weekly salon in Greenwich Village of artists, philosophers, writers and political activitsts, Dodge was someone who only participated on the fringes of the Players via personal relationship and who often feigned disgust with their work.  After describing an encounter with Cook and Hapgood on the streets of Provincetown one summer, the two men drunk and discussing Louise Bryant in the play Thirst, Dodge wrote “All these people disheartened me. I didn’t want to be a part of it.”(23)

Should this interpretation of The Eternal Quadrangle be correct, it makes the casting of Louise Bryant, Reed’s current lover, as Margot even more ironic, or perhaps on Reed’s part, even purposeful.  George Cram Cook played the husband Fortesque, Ida Rauh the maid Estelle, someone named Mr. Brown played Temple, and Reed played the butler/skater Archibald, opening the show with a display of skating.  One eyewitness from that summer remembers Reed passing out in one of the plays.(24)  With the physical display needed for this character (he opens the play by skating effortlessly around the stage), it is reasonable to consider this might have been the play in which this took place.  Reed was often in pain from a severe kidney ailment and was anticipating surgery for it that fall.  Susan Glaspell also refers to a night during one of the bills that summer when “things hadn’t gone so well” and one wonders if these events are at all related.(25)  Those who worked on the set and props were listed earlier, but, in addition, the modern painter Marsden Hartley remembers contributing by making a ticker tape for the play.(26)

© Jeff Kennedy 2007.

(1) There is no record as to whether this bill was given more than one night or not.

(1) Playscript of The Eternal Quadrangle from the Reed papers, qtd in Sarlos, Provincetown 46.

(1) Playscript of The Eternal Quadrangle from the Reed papers, qtd in Sarlos, Provincetown 46.

(1) John Reed, The Eternal Quadrangle, The Provincetown Players, A Choice of the Shorter Works, ed. Barbara Ozieblo (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994) 105.

(1) Schnitzler’s popularity in the late 20th Century in the United States surged with new a translation of Le Ronde by David Hare (The Blue Room) and a musical based on the original titled Hello Again by Michael John LeChiusa.  Translations of two other Schnitzler plays were translated and adapted by Tom Stoppard, renamed Dalliance and Undiscovered Country.  Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, was based on Schnitzler’s novella titled Rhapsody: A Dream Novel.  Sigmund Freud wrote an admiring letter to Schnitzler: "I have gained the impression that you have learned through intuition--though actually as a result of sensitive introspection--everything that I have had to unearth by laborious work on other persons."  Winthrop Ames of New York’s Little Theatre produced Schnitzler’s play Anatol in October of 1912, with an English translation by Granville-Barker andwith John Barrymore in the lead role.

(1) Reed, Eternal 109.

(1) Reed, Eternal 110.

(1) Reed, Eternal 113. This refers to the Shubert-owned theatre in Times Square where the popular revue The Passing Show had been playing since 1915.

(1) Reed, Eternal 114.

(1) Reed, Eternal 115.

(1) Reed, Eternal 115.

(1) Reed, Eternal 116.

(1) The play finally appeared in print in 1994’s The Provincetown Players, edited by Barbara Ozieblo.

(1) Hicks, John Reed 221.  The kind of plays in the 1915-1916 Broadway season to which Hicks refers include the Belasco-produced The Boomerang, Charles Kenyon’s Husband and Wife, The Mark of the Beast, and Fair and Warmer, all comedies about a lover using a third party to make their intended jealous. 

(1) Hicks, John Reed 175. Shaw was an avid reader and admirer of The Masses andhad written a letter in July 13, 1914 to editor Max Eastman “urging caution and good taste,” having taken exception with certain anti-clerical attitudes and with ads for books on sex being printed by the magazine.  On his way home from attempting to cover the war in Europe, Eastman stopped in London and was invited to spend a long afternoon with Shaw, of which Eastman wrote he had “the most richly hilarious and astutely sparkling and seemingly inexhaustible line of conversation I have ever encountered in this world” (Eastman, Enjoyment, 535).  Eastman’s encounter took place just weeks before Reed started on his play, and he most surely related it to Reed when he arrived in Provincetown.

(1) Reed, Eternal 114.

(1) Reed, Eternal 109, see footnote.

(1) Hicks 221.

(1) Cheryl Black and Robert K. Sarlós. "On the Threshold of Sexual Politics in American Theatre and Drama: The Provincetown Players," in Staging a Cultural Paradigm: The Political and the Personal in American Drama, ed. Barbara Ozieblo and Miriam López-Rodriguez (Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt/M, New York, Oxford, Wien: P.I.E.-Peter Lang, 2002) 136.

(1) Murphy, Provincetown2/9. 

(1) Reed, Eternal 109.

(1) Reed, Eternal 115.

(1) Luhan, Intimate Memories 484.

(1) Dearborn, Queen 57.

(1) Glaspell, Road 257.

(1) Egan 174.