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Lima Beans

by Alfred Kreymborg


Alfred Kreymborg was a native New Yorker and self-taught musician who became a member of New York’s poetic avant garde.  He founded the literary magazine, The Glebe, with painter and photographer Man Ray and later began the poetry journal Others with Walter Arensburg.  Others furthered the movement of modern and imagist poetry as it aligned itself with the work of visual artists associated with Post-Impressionism and with Dadaists like Marcel Duchamp.(1)  Early on, Kreymborg was interested in combining poetry and music in such a way as to get them to “move,” wondering if when he would “divide the lines, in accordance with cadences of speech, song would evolve . . .” and qualitatively believing that “the expression of a mood must be as natural as breathing”(2)  In the summer of 1914 he accepted an invitation from British art critic Charles Caffin and his wife Caroline to stay at their art colony in Connecticut called Silvermine.  Mrs. Caffin saw in Kreymborg’s free-verse dialogues, which he called “mushrooms,” “the nucleus of a new type of playwriting” with pantomimes set to music used in part to interpret the work.(3)  Kreymborg became familiar that summer with the theatrical ideas of Gordon Craig through his writings, which influenced him deeply.(4)  He soon became interested in the prose poem, characterized by its lack of line breaks, after learning about the genre from Hutchins Hapgood.  Eventually he attempted to combine free verse and his musical knowledge in a short play on love titled Lima Beans.  His goal was to treat “the three characters of the plot as he might have handled a trio of instruments in a sonata movement” and the result “dropped into the mold of a light-hearted scherzo.”(5)

William Zorach had suggested to Kreymborg that he submit the one-act play to the Players that fall and that he come down to the theatre to watch them rehearse.  Zorach told him “we’re strong on realism and weak on fantasy, maybe you can supply the latter,” adding that “they [the Players] have won such applause with their realism—and the more slapstick the better—that they simply can’t see beyond blood and thunder.”(6) Kreymborg had already met many of the Players in the Village, but when Cook explained to him that the Players’ emphasis was on the playwright, Kreymborg remembers that “here was what [I’d] been hoping for in the theatre: a creative group putting on its own plays and learning the entire profession of stagecraft.”(7)  However, after watching their first two bills, Kreymborg was sure that the Players’ “absorption in naturalism would prejudice them against what he was attempting: a fantastic treatment of commonplace themes set to stylized rhythms.”(8)  He was right: the only reason the play was accepted was because Reed threatened to resign.  Clearly the Players had been challenged on their stated goal of experimentation, and only Reed was able to remind them of their ideals.  Sadly, this was Reed’s last major contribution to the Players as a member of its Executive Committee; after his surgery he would resign from the group’s executive committee in anticipation of traveling on assignment as a reporter.

Kreymborg’s Lima Beans was placed on the season’s third bill.  Two of the “outside” actors Kreymborg recruited would later be amongst the most important poets of the period: Mina Loy and William Carlos Williams.(9)  Both poets’ careers were launched when their work was published in Kreymborg’s Others.(10)  Loy had just returned that fall to the United States after many years in Florence(11) and Williams was familiar with the Players through friends, particularly Charles Demuth.  Kreymborg believed their poetic sensibilities would allow them “to speak the dialogue as rhythmical free verse” as they played the husband and the wife, named “He” and “She.”(12) William Zorach played the third character, a vegetable salesman called “The Huckster,” and he and Marguerite committed to designing the sets.  The simple plot entails the wife deciding to break the couple’s routine of having lima beans for dinner every night, so when the Huckster arrives she buys string beans.  When the husband gets home and sees the string beans, he becomes enraged, declaring how much better lima beans are, and leaves.  The Huckster appears again and the wife buys lima beans.  When the husband returns, the couple reconciles and the curtain closing interrupts their kiss to end the play.  What is unique is clearly not the depth of the plot, but the free verse in rhythmic patterns in which the couple are asked to deliver their lines.  Kreymborg had originally written the play “with puppets partly in mind—dancing in accordance with the rhythm of the dialogue”; he had been influenced by puppet theatre while growing up.(13) Though Loy was “sniffing at the commonplaceness of the marriage theme” and Williams was “in terror lest he blow up,” the four of them rehearsed diligently in private.(14)

Lima Beans is subtitled “A Conventional Scherzo,” and its stage directions describe the style of the play quite explicitly:

Lima Beans might be defined as a pantomime dance of automatons to an accompaniment of rhythmic words, in place of music. . . . Pantomime in the form of a semi-dance of gesture, in accordance with the sense more than the rhythm of the lines, is modestly indulged by husband and wife, suggesting an inoffensive parody, unless the author errs, of the contours of certain ancient Burmese dance.(15)  The reading tempo varies, slow to fast, fast to slow, in accordance with the sense more than the rhythm: the gradations might be prompted by an invisible maitre-d’orchestre.  Words, silences, pantomime—all should be presented inside a homogeneous rhythmic patter.(16)

Mardi Valgemae, in his history of expressionism in American drama, states that a “strong ritualistic element pervades the work,” and that the “dialogue is not only lyrical but greatly abbreviated and disconnected.”(17)  Ozieblo identifies the “galloping” style of the dialogue as using the technique of stichomythia, an ancient Greek arrangement of dialogue in which single lines of verse or parts of lines are spoken by alternate speakers.(18) Elizabeth Weist, in her dissertation on Kreymborg, sees the play as re-enacting a ritual to Hyman, the God of the wedding feast.  Murphy postulates the levels from which the play can viewed: “on a literal level, the play is a little parable about marital forbearance,” but as a metaphor, she sees Kreymborg being more mischievous, and that “the vegetative profusion obviously suggests the procreative character of the marriage, and Kreymborg uses the lima bean and the string bean as metaphors for female and male sexuality.”  She suggests that by giving him string beans instead of limas, the “wife is offering him some variety in their love-making that does not include intercourse.”(19)  Murphy’s interpretation of the metaphor connects the play even more to Weist’s idea that the play is an epithalamium, a song or poem written to celebrate a marriage.(20)  Provincetown Players scholar Drew Eisenhauer notes that the play ends with “two odd theatrical events that comment on the nature of theatre.”  The first is when He and She break the fourth wall and turn to the audience directly, He pointing “with warning” and She putting her head to He’s, the two staring at the audience.  He then whispers something in She’s ear and she nods with “uproarious delight.”(21)  Eisenhauer lists possible reasons Kreymborg has them do this: “perhaps the lovers are giggling about the audience’s own domestic foibles” or this was a “mild critique” on “drama as an institution and the theatre as its distributive apparatus.”(22)  The second incident occurs a few moments later, when the curtain descends on the couple halfway as they kiss and the couple begins “frantic signaling for the curtain to wait till they have finished,” but it does not wait.(23)  Eisenhauer sees this “in the manner of futurist sketches,” as the playwright “appropriates the curtain as another meta-theatrical device, using it as both an example and a comment on the new theatre.”(24) 

Rehearsals for Lima Beans, held three nights a week, began simply as Kreymborg beat time with a pencil while the actors read their lines.  This bothered Williams a great deal at the beginning, but he slowly came to understand the author’s intention.  Loy’s character eventually appealed to her sense of comedy.  They both were then asked to move like marionettes to highlight the play’s abstraction.  Once the play moved to rehearse in the Playhouse, Kreymborg sensed the membership’s overall skepticism: “They were clearly mystified by a thing they were unaccustomed to.”(25)  Williams remembers that when he kissed Loy, whom he had decided his character would give a “china-doll kiss,” someone in the dark yelled at him, “for God sake’s, kiss her!”  Zorach sang his role “with zest and vehemence”; Williams later remembered Zorach looked like Harpo Marx with his curly hair.(26)

The Zorachs’ set was black and white, “based on the screens of Gordon Craig, with spots of color supplied by some bowls and ornaments.”(27)  Williams described it as “using colors in planes and angles with patterns of remarkable vegetables.”(28)  A photo of a scene from the play shows the walls as checkerboard squares, placed in five large panels, two on stage left side, two on stage right side, and one very large panel along the back that is centered, each of them with a white border painted as if moulding surrounding them.(29) In the middle of the back panel is a window cut out about eight feet wide and three feet tall.  On the stage is a small table, two high-back chairs, a sideboard against the upstage right wall, and below the window with the same width as the window is painted a cubist-style outline of a sink or stove.  Kreymborg’s stage directions call for a curtain “which is painted in festoons of vegetables,” and the only evidence that this was created is that “The Curtain” is listed as a character in the program.  Kenton called it “one of the most effective sets we ever used.”(30)  She writes that it cost $13.85, but Kreymborg claims only $2.50.(31)  Loy came up with her own costume, wearing a green taffeta gown with a plunging neckline, gold slippers, and jewelry from her collection, including a mosaic brooch, dangling gold earrings, and ornate English rings.  The photo shows a covering on her head, darker in color than her dress, though it can’t really be called a hat.  According to Kreymborg, her costume was “not in keeping with Mrs. Lima,” but that it “served to fascinate the beholders.”  Poet Marianne Moore, who attended one of the performances, said that Loy was “very beautiful in the play” and that she “enunciated beautifully”(32); their pre-show meeting is purported to have inspired Moore to write her poem “Those Various Scalpels,” with the title referring to “tools of surgery, used for quick, precise cuts” and the poem later questioning “Are they weapons or scalpels?”(33)  Williams’ made his own costume as well, which the playwright called “a weird concoction.”(34) The photo shows him a light-colored shiny formal coat with tails and matching short pants, some kind of light material legging that goes from his ankles up to under the short pants, and a white formal shirt with an ascot tie.  Someone, one assumes Zorach, appears in the window for the photo and his arms dangle through the opening and hang down.  His arms and hands are very dark as is the rest of him and one can just see the whites of his eyes against all the dark; more detail cannot be distinguished.

Kreymborg recalls the packed house for the opening, which was proving to be typical for the Players: “No matter how the group tried their patience, Provincetown audiences were loyal down to the last subscriber.”  The revelation of the set received applause.  Other than some giggling at the beginning, the playwright reports the audience was silent.  When the play was finished, however, he describes there “came the most unheard of pandemonium,” the audience applauding wildly, giving the play sixteen curtain calls.(35)  Zorach called the playwright to the stage to be recognized and presented him with a basket of vegetables.  Kenton felt that the “carefully worked out” movements and speech in rhythm made it seem like “spontaneous play . . .”  Here was a clear case of what fine synthesis an experimental stage could give when a poet wrote, when poets spoke and when a poet-painter painted.”(36) Valgemae cites Moody E. Prior and agrees with him that “Kreymborg’s early work is in the tradition of expressionistic verse drama and should be taken seriously” and points out that novelist and social historian Waldo Frank stated that Kreymborg had “more claim to be called the founder of the modern American theatre than Eugene O’Neill.”(37)  Eisenhauer writes that “Kreymborg’s verse dramas are some of the earliest examples of formally experimental American theatre, which at the very beginnings of modern American drama, challenged the assumption realism would be the dominant form of American theatre,” citing that these plays are the “forerunners of expressionist works” by O’Neill, Glaspell, and Elmer Rice.(38)  The ultimate apprehension of the Players to Kreymborg’s play points up what Glaspell scholar Gerhard Bach calls “the internal war of experimentation between the forces favoring an idealism based on socio-economic outlook and the forces favoring an idealism completely devoid of contemporary concerns.”(39)  Cook, as Ozieblo points out, showed a strong preference for the “‘forces’ of social idealism.”(40)  Kreymborg was made an active member of the Players because of the play’s success and served on the play-reading committee.  Two years later, after performances of Lima Beans and other Kreymborg plays in St. Louis, Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry, declared Kreymborg “a poetic and interpretive playwright of original and authentic power, a claimant for wide recognition on the American stage.”  Of this same production, a critic for the St. Louis Much Ado wrote: “This is a very profound drama.  One hardly knows which direction to allow his sympathies to lead him.”  The critic calls the “eulogy of lima beans” by the husband “one of the most pretentious things in modern literature.  It ranks with the well-known soliloquy of Hamlet.”(41)

© Jeff Kennedy 2007.

(1) Over its four years of publication, Others published the following poets who were associated with the Provincetown Players: William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Mina Loy, Maxwell Bodenheim, William Saphier, Mary Carolyn Davies, Djuna Barnes, William Zorach, Marguerite Zorach, Kathleen Cannell, Florence Kiper Frank, and Evelyn Scott (Murphy, Provincetown, 3/5).

(2) Alfred Kremborg, Troubador, an American Autobiography (1925; New York: Sagamore Press, 1957)119.

(3) Kreymborg, Troubador 174.

(4) To refresh the ideas of Gordon Craig, refer to Chapter 1, p34.

(5) Kreymborg, Troubador 218-219.  A scherzo was typically the third movement of symphonies, or second of string quartets, sonatas and other multiple movement works from the 19th Century on, replacing the minuet but retaining its triple meter feel.  Typically of a light-hearted nature (the word means “joke” in Italian), it’s more formal structure was ABA, with the first A section featuring a theme, the theme repeated in new key, a new theme in same new key, and repeat of the first theme.  The B section was a Trio, often written for fewer instruments to create contrast with the A, and then followed by a complete repeat of the A section.

(6) Kreymborg, Troubador 240, 242.

(7) Kreymborg, Troubador 241.

(8) Kreymborg, Troubador 242.

(9) Williams was also a full-time physician.

(10) Other significant poets whose careers were launched in Others include Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens.  Loy’s controversial “Love Songs” appeared in the first issue of Others.

(11) Loy had been with Dodge and Boyce in Florence in the summer of 1914 when World War I began in Europe.

(12) Carolyn Burke, Becoming Modern, the Life of Mina Loy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996) 220.

(13) Kreymborg, Troubador 242.

(14) Kreymborg, Troubador 243.

(15) Murphy believes this influence came from dancer Kathleen Cannell and her interpretive dance poetry (Murphy, Provincetown3/11).

(16) Alfred Kreymborg, “Lima Beans,” The Provincetown Players, a Choice of the Shorter Works, ed. Barbara Ozieblo (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 131.

(17) Mardi Valgamae, Accelerated Grimace: Expressionism in the American Drama of the 1920s (Carbondale: Southern Illinois U Press, 1972) 20.

(18) Kreymborg, Lima Beans 28.

(19) Murphy, The Provincetown 3/13-14.

(20) The Bible’s Song of Solomon is typically cited as a prime example of an epithalamium.

(21) Kreymborg, Lima Beans 143.

(22) Drew Eisenhauer, “Alfred Kreymborg and Lima Beans,” II International Conference on American Theatre and Drama: Acting America: the Plays and the Players, University of Malaga, Malaga, Spain, 18-20 May 2004.

(23) Kreymborg, Lima Beans 143.

(24) Eisenhauer

(25) Kreymborg, Troubador 243.

(26) William Carlos Williams, The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (1951; New York: New Directions, 1967)139.

(27) Kreymborg, Troubador 243.

(28) Zorach, Art 46.

(29) Photo is from Current Opinion, February 1918, without a caption to identify that those in the picture are Loy and Williams.  However, Watson in Strange Bedfellows (235) identifies the two in the photo as Loy and Williams.  Since the article the photo appears in was published two years later and was in response to a performance of Kreymborg’s plays in St. Louis, it is possible the photo is not of the original Provincetown production.

(30) Kenton 46.

(31) Kenton 46; Kreymborg, Troubadour  243.

(32) Burke 221-222.

(33) Susan McCabe, “The ‘Ballet Mecanique’ of Marianne Moore’s Cinematic Modernism,” Mosaic 33.2 (2000): 67.

(34) Kreymborg, Troubador 243.

(35) Kreymborg, Troubador 244.

(36) Kenton 45-46.

(37) Valgemae 23.

(38) Eisenhauer.

(39) Gerhard Bach, “Susan Glaspell—Provincetown Playwright,” Great Lakes Review 4.ii (1978): 35-36.

(40) Ozieblo, Provincetown 28.

(41) “Toy Tragedies of the Free-Verse Theater,” Current Opinion, February 1918.