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by John Reed


John Reed’s Freedom was another play, like Suppressed Desires (and probably Boyce’s Constancy), that had been rejected by the Washington Square Players.  This means that Reed most likely wrote it sometime within the year before the summer of 1916 and, given Reed’s trip to Europe, maybe as early as 1914.  Descriptions of the play range from a “stirring, bitter prison play” by Deutsch and Hanau (clearly they had neither read nor seen it) to a “good-humored satire” by Reed biographer Hicks; Sarlos goes farther by calling it a “hilarious farce.”  The play is a metaphor set in a comedic manner, with three of the character names in the Everyman style of “The Poet,” “The Romantic,” and a slight permutation for the character “Trusty,” though this is the title given a trusted prisoner who performers work for a prison.  The fourth main character is “Smith,” using the common American surname to give a slant to an “everyman” type of character.  The plot unfolds as Trusty, who is an older man, is reading his Bible and has said good night and been locked in his cell by the guard.  Suddenly, a “large block of stone heaves out of the wall, falling silently on the bed” and through this new hole in the wall come the other three main characters, who are going to escape the prison using a well-thought out plan.(1)  Trusty decides not to join them because he’s becoming “a man of responsibility in this community,” meaning the prison, and out in the world he’d be “nothing but a bum again.”(2) This causes The Poet to start rethinking his motivation for escape, finally deciding he can’t leave because “how can I write about Freedom when I’m free?”(3)  The Romantic is the character whom both Sarlos and Murphy call a Tom Sawyer-type and who is clearly caught up in the methodology and adventure of the escape; he finds out there will be no resistance to him leaving, and chooses to stay because “what’s the use of escaping from a prison you can just walk out of?  No man of honor would take advantage of such weakness.”(4)  Smith, though, just wants to be free; the others decide he’s become a traitor and cause enough of a ruckus that the guards appear.  The play ends with Smith’s line, “I was trying to break into a padded cell so I could be free!”(5) 

Reed throws in some sly literary and historical references throughout the play.  When Trusty is searched, a number of suffragette magazines are found on him and he tells them his grandmother, Mrs. Pankhurst, sends them to him. Emmeline Pankhurst was a famous British political activist for suffragette causes, but had a patriotic view of the war; her magazine The Suffragette changed its name to Britannia in 1915, condemning those who expressed anti-war sentiments.   Though an obscure reference for anyone who reads the play today, Reed uses the reference as a clue to Trusty’s character, setting up his decision to stay put.  Reed has The Poet quote from Thoreau(6), which was particularly appropriate for Provincetown since Thoreau visited Provincetown four times between 1849 and 1857 and was famous as the first major author to write about the spot.  Smith refers to The Poet as Alcibiades, the Greek politician and general who changed allegiances three times.  These are just a few of the literary references in the dense script.

Reed’s biographers make it clear that his arrest and imprisonment in Paterson, New Jersey on trumped up charges during the 1913 strike were a life-changing experience for him.  Rosenstone reports that because he “enjoyed standing out from the crowd . . . he had difficulty in behaving like a common striker,” and Reed wrote from prison “I’m neither a hero nor a martyr—the whole business is a joke. . . . My infernal sense of Romance and Humor makes me rather enjoy it.”(7)  Murphy insightfully sees that Freedom operates on two levels of metaphor, particularly if seen through the lens of Reed’s experience in prison; she sees the play as “a dramatization of the conflicting responses . . . that are abstracted into cultural phenomena so as to make a statement about the restrictions on freedom within the culture itself.”  The first and most specific level of metaphor is Reed’s own personality and conflicting attitudes “anthropomorphized and given full reign to interact as character within the paradigm of a farcical comedy.”(8)  Second, she sees the play as a message that his “fellow bohemians” had to be “willing to live their radical politics,” otherwise “they would remain the prisoners of what he considered an outworn 19th Century culture.”(9)  There is no known cast list for this performance, but the Gelbs state that O’Neill acted in “a play by Reed,” and Steele, who was also in the cast, recalled his role only had two lines, but that O’Neill “used to shake with fright every time he walked on stage”; Sarlos assumes this to mean the play was Freedom.(10)  The only role with two lines in Freedom is that of the Second Guard, and if Steele could observe O’Neill’s behavior, it is likely he played the First Guard, with whom the Second Guard enters at the end of the play.  The cast for the November 1916 production by the Players in New York City had B.J.O. Nordfeldt as Trusty, Floyd Dell as the Poet, and Harry Kemp as The Romantic and it is certainly possible, since they were all in Provincetown that summer, that they played these roles there.  One wonders how the Players realized the set, particularly with needing to push a block out of a wall, creating a hole for the characters to enter through.

© Jeff Kennedy 2007.

(1) John Reed, Freedom, in The Provincetown Players: A Choice of the Shorter Works, ed. Barbara Ozieblo (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994) 793

(2) Reed, Freedom 89.

(3) Reed, Freedom 90.

(4) Reed, Freedom 91.

(5) Reed, Freedom 92.

(6) The quote “Now up the Eastern sky creep Day’s rosy fingers” comes from Thoreau’s “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.”

(7) Rosenstone 122.

(8) Murphy, Provincetown2/46.

(9) Murphy, Provincetown2/48.

(10) Sarlos, Provincetown 30.