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Funiculi Funicula
by Rita Wellman


The last play of the second bill of the 1917-1918 season was Funiculi Funicula by Rita Wellman.  The title is taken from the title of an Italian song written by journalist Peppino Turco and composer Luigi Denza in 1880.  It was written to celebrate the first funicular, an inclined railway or tram-like cable-rail, that opened on Mount Vesuvius.  The song became a hit in Italy, eventually being heard around the world, and is still today associated as a joyous party song that typifies the Italian spirit.  The English translation of the original Italian words do not reflect the flavor of the English words more popularly set in America to the tune; the original speaks more about going up to the top of the mountain with the singer’s lover, whereas the newer English words say “Some think the world was made for fun and frolic, and so do I! So do I!”  Wellman’s three-character play is about a Greenwich Village unmarried couple, Taddema, an unsuccessful poet, and Alma, a painter/sculptor, who live in a small, unkempt Washington Square apartment with their three-year old daughter, Bambi, who is very sick in the other room.  The play opens with a discussion between a doctor and Alma about the way that they’re living, the doctor telling Alma that their daughter is not growing up as a child should, and that they need to alter their lives to give her something different, perhaps even move to the country.  Alma finally says to the doctor, “We have our work to do.  We can’t give up our work simply for Bambi? Why should we?” to which the Doctor asks, “Then your child’s life isn’t worth as much to you as your—art—or whatever you call it?”  This question sets up the dilemma of the play: can a healthy child be raised in the bohemian ways and philosophy of life?  Perhaps as a second idea, the play pits the prevailing notion of the need of the artist to be free from responsibility to be able to create against the need of the artist to take responsibility for that which they created: in this case, their child.

The Doctor leaves and Taddema comes home; he has been helping decorate for a dance that’s about to take place upstairs.  He is immediately agitated that the doctor has placed his daughter in the bed he intends to sleep in and by the mess of the room, though he finally offers to help Alma clean it up, to which she replies, “Oh, don’t sweep.  It always makes things worse.”(1) Alma asks about the dance, what costumes will be worn, and realizes she didn’t even know about it, feeling her present life keeps her separate from everything going on.  They go back and forth about wanting to go to the dance and yet feeling sorry about leaving Bambi when she’s as sick as she is.  When Alma asks if Taddema has sold his poem and finds it’s been rejected, she asks him how they’re going to get money, which they need terribly, particularly with Bambi’s illness, implying he should feel some responsibility.  Responsibility, however, is juxtaposed against free spirit when Taddema tells her “The doctor and druggist have nothing to do with my immortal soul.”  Alma decries the double standard of her having to bear their responsibilities, particularly for Bambi, while Taddema experiences the irresponsible freedom needed for him to create.  This dichotomy is highlighted through their lack of food to eat while Taddema insists that Alma be quiet while he tries to write something.  Alma declares her feelings of worthlessness, and Taddema reminds her that being a mother was upon her insistence, conjured in a fantasy of what life could be like when the two of them were in Rome.  They relive for a moment their idyllic life and the dreams they had for themselves as artists while there, but Alma abruptly concludes, “It was all wrong, so foolishly wrong. . . We’ve become ugly.  We’ve become unworthy.  We’re petty and commonplace.  We’ve a few pieces of furniture, a place to come to and pay for, and a child—a child we both hate.”  This bald declaration is too much for even Taddema, but Alma continues, saying “She’s made a family out of us—something we can’t stand.  We’ve never forgiven her for making us feel all our passion was for her sake.”(2)  A moment later, a young costumed couple in an amorous embrace burst into their room, quickly leaving after realizing they’ve mistaken the apartment for the room the party was being held in.  This causes Alma to want to go to the party, and the two decide it would be okay to leave Bambi for just a little while.  Taddema gets out their costumes as Alma goes to check on their daughter, and the orchestra begins to play “Funiculi Funicula” upstairs.  When Alma returns, clearly something horrific has happened, but she tries to brush it off and asks for her costume; the two will go as Columbine and Pierrot.  Her behavior gets more manic as she dresses and then begins to seduce Taddema, asking him to “Be my lover again,--Come, be my lover—You are my lover aren’t you? Aren’t you?”(3) Taddema, aware that something is wrong, begins to ask if Bambi is worse as Alma tries to prevent him from going in to see her and leave for the party.  She finally gets Taddema’s attention saying, “Think only of me, and I will think only of you.  Nothing else matters. Taddem, look at me.  Look at me.  Kiss me.  Just once—kiss me.”  He is about to kiss her when her grief breaks through; she confesses that when she went in to check on Bambi she found her dead and she leaves the room “weeping hysterically.”  The curtain falls as Taddema’s own grief overtakes him in a now- darkened room, save for moonlight, and we hear a man, with a girl eventually joining in, singing the words to “Funiculi Funicula.”(4)

The irony of Funiculi Funicula is that Wellman’s play had been placed in a bill with plays by a poet, Bodenheim, whose life personified what Wellman is examining here; perhaps this was the thinking of the play selection committee.  The Players had presented plays that looked at those who lived in the Village through a satirical lens, but only Cocaine before this play had come close to presenting this tragic of a look at Bohemian life.  Also, one must remember that Wellman (like King with Cocaine, for that matter) can only speak as an observer about this topic, having been raised herself in a well-to-do family with a father who was nationally famous as a journalist and explorer.  Perhaps she is using the play to make her own commentary on the manner of life she observed in the Village, or more specifically the victim status she perceived of a child born into this type of life.  Wellman herself married a socialite a few years later, and she seems to have left all connection to the Village after that point.  Sarlos calls the play “a portrayal of physical and mental squalor,”(5) and Black writes that the play “depicts the tragic consequences of material obligations for a woman ‘who was never intended to be a mother.’”(6) Ida Rauh played Alma; James Light, who was quickly becoming known for good acting in two major roles, played Taddema; and Hutchinson Collins played Doctor Collins.  Edith Unger, after designing the costumes for the two Bodenheim plays, played the Young Girl and Eduard Nagle the Young Man.  No director or set designer are listed, and one wonders how the music, so vital to the play, was produced on stage.

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) Rita Wellman, “Funiculi, Funicula,” The Provincetown Players, ed. Barbara Ozielbo (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994) 172.

(2) Wellman, Funiculi 175.

(3) Wellman, Funiculi 177.

(4) Wellman, Funiculi 178.

(5) Sarlos, Provincetown 164.

(6) Black, Women 53.