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King Arthur's Socks

by Floyd Dell


King Arthur’s Socks was the new play on the first bill of the first New York season of the Players and it didn’t stray from Dell’s milieu of satire created in his Liberal Club plays (see Dell's biography on this site for more about this).  One wonders if the wish to connect Dell’s past popular work to the Players may have been behind placing his play in the opening bill.  Set in “a summer cottage in Camelot, Maine” in 1916, the plot concerns a man and a woman in love with each other, but, because both are married to others, they fight with the impulse to “act upon their amorous inclinations.”(1)  One interesting aspect of the work is that the male character, Lancelot, has also caused two other female characters, Vivien and Mary, to fall in love with him and they individually tell this to Guenevere, unsuspecting that she is in love with Lancelot herself.  Guenevere sits and darns the socks of her husband, King Arthur, as each woman talks to her.  Mary declares that, though she did nothing more than sneak into his room and kiss Lancelot, she “wanted to be wicked.”  Guenevere consoles her with “Never mind, Mary.  We all want to be wicked at times.  But something always happens.”(2)  Later, alone with Guenevere, Lancelot accuses women of being afraid but nonetheless responding by accusing men of being cowards, confronting Guenevere’s excuse that her reason and common sense prevent her from having an affair.  He charges that she really wants to be “made to do something” she doesn’t “approve of.”  He tells her: “You want to be wicked, and you want it to be someone else’s fault.  Tell me—isn’t that true?”  She replies that it’s true “except for one thing,” that if he had swept her off her feet he wouldn’t have been to blame and confesses, “I should have loved you forever because you could do it.  And now, because you couldn’t—I despise you.  Now you know. . . . Go.”  Lancelot corrects her that she’s really angry with him and herself because she can’t “quite forget King Arthur,” to which she agrees, exclaiming how she envies “women who can dare to make fools of themselves—who forget everything and don’t care what they do!  I suppose that’s love—and I’m not up to it.”  She decides she isn’t “primitive enough,” to which he admits he isn’t either.(3)  The play concludes with the pair almost falling to their passions one last time and then Lancelot leaves, while Guenevere returns to her chair “and quietly resumes the darning of her husband’s socks.”(4) 

Not only does Dell touch on attitudes prevalent in the Village about marriage and free love in his play, but he also addresses the “the paradox that had always troubled and delighted Dell: that the rebellious generation of which he was a part was also traditional in its underlying desires and principles.”  Clayton points out that in all of Dell’s writing that touched on this subject, “marital faithfulness and stability, not amorous spontaneity, wins the hearts of its self-consciously sophisticated characters.”(5) The cast included new actors in the Players’ group: Edna James as Guevevere Robinson, Jane Burr as Vivien Smith, and Augusta Cary as Mary, with Max Eastman as Lancelot Jones.  Rathbun in his review simply said that the play was “good fun.”(6)

© Jeff Kennedy 2007.

(1) Clayton 144.

(2) Floyd Dell, King Arthur’s Socks and Other Village Plays (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1922)161.

(3) Dell, King 172-173.

(4) Dell, King 174.

(5) Clayton 144.

(6) Sheaffer, Playwright 363.