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The Gentle Furniture Shop

by Maxwell Bodenheim


Unique for any bill thus far produced by the Players, a second play by the same playwright was placed on the second bill of the 1917-1918 season.  Bodenheim’s The Gentle Furniture Shop is a very short play, which is perhaps why the Players thought they could produce four instead of the typical three plays on the bill.  Murphy describes the play as “a retail metaphor for the stages of Life.”(1)  There on three stores on one street, a Dancing Robe shop for the young, Fortune-Telling for the middle-aged, and the Gentle Furniture Shop for older people.  The play takes place inside the Furniture shop, with two salesmen who reveal that their customers can never buy what they want, but must take whatever they are given or get nothing at all; regardless of this, the salesmen marvel that their customers “seem to delight in argument.”(2) Murphy writes, “It becomes evident that the chairs represent the given circumstances of one’s existential condition,”(3) for, as a salesman tells a customer, “Life rules this shop and we must obey him.”(4)  When they inform the Old Man and Woman that they cannot have the chairs they desire, giving them reasons that imply they don’t know what is best for them, they stand dejected.  This causes the Proprietor, which, if one follows the metaphor, is the embodiment of Life, to encourage them to take what they’ve been given because “life’s choices can only narrow down to a graceful unconcern—there is nothing else.”(5) Suddenly a Young Girl “dances into the shop,” and she asks for a “slender black chair” so that her “favorite mood” will find its “refuge.”  When the Proprietor tells her she’s in the wrong store, she replies that she isn’t interested in dancing robes that day, sees the chair she wants, takes it, and skips away saying “Good-bye, amazed merchants.”  One of the salesmen breaks their astonishment by exclaiming, “Why, she didn’t even pay for the chair she took away!”  As the Old Man turns to question the Proprietor about the chair he’s been given, finding newfound courage from seeing the Young Girl, the Proprietor doesn’t even let him finish, ending the play with: “Take what you like, old man.  This Gentle Furniture-Shop is a fraud . . . shops of all kinds exist, I suppose, to unknowingly deceive their customers.”  The last image before the curtain is the Proprietor—Life—standing and looking “downcast.”(6)  The cast included, as in the first Bodenheim of the bill, Liveright as the Old Man, and Upjohn as the Old Woman, and then filled out the rest with Eduard Nagle and Mozart Maskewitz as the two Furniture Sellers, W. S. Matthews at the Proprietor, and Edith Unger as the Young Girl; Unger also designed the costumes.  Again, no director or set designer are listed for the show.  Kreymborg claims the play appeared in a magazine put out by Grand Rapids Furniture.(7)

Murphy thus summarizes the play’s theme: “One has to seize control of life in order to be happy, and those who passively sink into whatever circumstances they are given are bound to be dissatisfied.  The old man’s gesture toward self-assertion and free will at the end suggests that there is hope for self-determination at any stage of life.”(8)  Sarlos writes that, “except for its exposition, the symbolic miniature is quite effective.”(9)  Kenton, though, seems to sum up the overall attitude of the Players toward these poetic plays in an April 1918 article she wrote for the Boston Transcript: “the less said the kinder, for in them both fancy and stage mechanics lapsed.”  She gives a somewhat vague reason for her comments by writing,

Inveterate players, they like to play with crowns and with swords, with bright fabrics and a paint box and fancy.  Because poetic and fantasy plays require above all things deft though not necessarily involved stage mechanics to produce in unillusioned minds the effect of illusion, their failures with this sort of play have been marked and almost invariable.(10)

Kenton wrote later in her memoir that the two Bodenheim plays “missed the mark, if any, at which the author aimed in writing them and at which we aimed in producing them.  They were the stepchildren of this bill, were hustled off into corners and left to shift for themselves.”(11)

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) Murphy, Provincetown 3/38.

(2) Maxwell Bodenheim, “The Gentle Furniture Shop,” The Provincetown Players, ed. Barbara Ozielbo (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994) 180.

(3) Bodenheim, Gentle 181.

(4) Murphy, Provincetown 3/38.

(5) Bodenheim, Gentle 181.

(6) Bodenheim, Gentle 182.

(7) Kreymborg, Troubadour 244.

(8) Murphy, Provincetown 3/39.

(9) Sarlos, Jig 83.

(10) Kenton 74.

(11) Kenton 63.