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The Peace That Passeth Understanding

by John Reed


When it finally opened on March 21, 1919, the Fifth Bill of the 1918-19 season began the evening with a play that had the potential to place the Players directly into the hottest bed of political controversy in the country at the time.  The short play was The Peace That Passeth Understanding by John Reed, who was by this time the country’s most notorious American Bolshevik.  He was also once its finest and best-paid reporter, who, after his journey in 1917 to Russia to witness the Russian Revolution, had become a political liability to any magazine that had formerly sought his work.  Reed, of course, had also been a founding member and driving force behind the creation of the Provincetown Players and their move to establish a presence in New York City in 1916.  Along with his wife, Louise Bryant, Reed had resigned from the Players in early 1917, believing the two were on the way to China for an extended stay with an assignment from Metropolitan magazine.  Both of their Socialist political activities and paid reporting/writing assignments had made maintaining any kind of active participation in the Players almost impossible, so with this assignment they had chosen to end their membership officially.  However, when President Wilson began hinting at U.S. participation in World War I, leading to its official entry on April 6, 1917, Metropolitan rescinded their assignment.  Reed’s leftist political leanings, often stated boldly in articles he wrote for The Masses, made him a problem for magazines that were changing their tone to one appropriate for a nation at war.  By June 1917, Reed had found work at the New York Mail, writing a daily feature story, he continued to contribute to The Masses, and he’d begun an autobiographical essay.  Meanwhile, Bryant left for France, confused about their relationship and her own career. 

On August 17, 1917, just a few days after Bryant returned from Europe, the two of them sailed for Russia by way of Stockholm.  In February 1917,(1) the Russian people had overthrown the Czar, hoping for food, land, and a better way of life, but the moderate government that took over did not provide these things either, and so its overthrow was now anticipated.  Believing there was brewing in Russia the potential for the story of a lifetime, Max Eastman, editor of The Masses, raised $2000 to allow Reed to travel there and cover it.  Bryant received assignments and official-status papers from a couple of magazines, including, ironically, Metropolitan.  After a harrowing journey just to get into the country, they landed in Petrograd, where Reed and Bryant witnessed first hand the revolution led by Trotsky, Lenin and the radical Bolsheviks that culminated with an armed insurrection on November 7, 1917, and the establishment of the Soviet state that became known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).  Reed received word in January 1918 that he’d been indicted along with the other Masses editors under the Espionage Act, driving him to return to the United States.  Bryant and a friend sailed back first in early February, and Reed arrived in Christiana, Norway, on February 10 only to be told that the US State Department had instructed officials in Scandinavia to not recognize his passport, causing him to miss his ship to the US.  He was held up for two months until his visa was finally accepted.  The day before his arrival in New York on April 28, 1918, the trial against the editors of The Masses for violating the Espionage Act of 1917 ended in a hung jury, but the defendants were immediately told the case would be retried.  Reed’s first task upon his arrival was to post $2000 bail at the Federal Building. 

Reed’s activities in Russia had been far from non-partisan or objective, and he was watched carefully by agents of the United States government, his every move noted and reported.  During his first few months back in the States, Reed attended the trials of I.W.W. members arrested in Chicago, and spoke at Socialist rallies and public meetings all over the country, retelling the events he witnessed in Russia.  He received support for being a martyr as a defendant in The Masses trial, and used the message of Russia’s radical Bolsheviks to stir up an uprising of labor workers in the United States.  He was warned that the power of his rhetoric put him under scrutiny with the government, particularly in light of the Sedition Act of 1918.  This act, originally the Espionage Act of 1917, was amended by Congress to not only target those who interfered with the draft, but also those individuals who publicly criticized the government, including negative comments about the flag, the military or the Constitution.  This new law went into effect May 18, 1918, but Reed continued to speak at a number of rallies, many of which resulted in his arrest with a charge of inciting to riot.

After The Masses had been shut down, the same people who produced it, including editor Max Eastman, went on to publish in 1918 a very similar journal, The Liberator, which gave information about socialist movements throughout the world and was the first to break the news that the Allies had invaded Russia.(2)  However, Eastman was cautious not to incite another prosecution with its contents, which didn’t sit well with a now even more radical Reed.  In August 1918, Reed resigned from the Liberator’s editorial staff, claiming he didn’t want to appear acceptable in the eyes of the government.  Reed did contribute articles to the journal, however, and he also pursued the possibility of editing a new journal called These States with Floyd Dell and Frank Harris, though the publication never came to be.  Since returning from Russia, his friends found Reed to be “more aggressively political, more intolerant, more self-destructive.”(3)  September 1918 brought the second Masses trial; in the five days of testimony and argument, the prosecution had a difficult time proving either the conspiracy charge, or that the articles in question had created any kind of disruption for the military.  On October 5, all of the Masses defendants were acquitted and freed.

November 1918 was the one-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the end of World War I as the armistice was signed, the abdication of the Kaiser, and the building and opening of the new Provincetown Playhouse at 133 Macdougal Street.  Unfortunately, Reed took to bed as he fought off the influenza epidemic that had stricken the country.  After speaking at a number of formal celebrations for the anniversary of the Revolution, recounting the events he had witnessed at the Congress of Soviets in Petrograd, Reed began to consider from what point of view he would write a planned book about his experience in Russia.  While waiting for his visa in Scandinavia, he had outlined a version of the book that was “analytical and polemic.”(4)  Now with the anniversary of the revolution, recounting the events in his addresses made him consider if writing from a reporter’s perspective might not be the better way to present the material.  Unfortunately, all of the notes, papers, newspapers, pamphlets, placards, and historical material that he’d brought from Russia to recount his experience were confiscated when he reentered the country, and were now in the hands of the State Department.   Thankfully, in early November, through the influence of journalist Lincoln Steffens with close Presidential advisor, Colonel House, his papers were all returned.  He secretly rented a room on the top floor above Polly Holliday’s new restaurant, the Greenwich Village Inn, and for two months he virtually disappeared and did nothing but write the book.  On New Year’s Day, 1919, he completed the book, titled Ten Days That Shook the World, and delivered it to his publishers, Boni and Liveright.  Released on March 19, 1919 and given a fourth printing by July of that same year, Ten Days That Shook the World became a best seller and, though hardly objective, it gives a vibrant and unique first-hand account of this incredible event in history.  Reed was now “regarded in many circles as the single most important expert on the revolution.”(5)          

Louise Bryant left on a nationwide lecture tour from March until May of 1919, which included selling her own published account of the Revolution, Six Red Months in Russia, released in the fall of 1918.  During this time, Reed was offered many speaking engagements, appeared in trials for his previous arrests, and testified before Congress.  He also became very much involved in leading and developing ideas within a more radical branch of the Socialist Party in New York, one that adopted the Bolshevik ideas that Reed had come to strongly believe while in Russia; in fact, Lenin and Trotsky expected him to organize just such a wing of the party.  However, the split within the Socialist ranks and the Reed’s basic personality of being “uncomfortable in organizations, uninterested in political infighting,” separated him even more from those with whom he had begun his career.(6)  “Hounded by the authorities, separated from Louise for weeks at a time, dismayed by the bureaucratic squabbling of his comrades, he lost much of his ebullience but none of his commitment.”(7)

Serving the poet in him that had often surfaced in these kinds of times, Reed wrote a satirical play based on the Paris Peace Conference, which had taken place from January 12-20, 1919 and was convened to negotiate the treaties of peace between the World War I Allied and Associated Powers and their former enemies.  The Peace That Passeth Understanding, a double-entendre making both a Biblical reference and a more literal reference about the Peace conference itself, appeared in the March 1919 edition of The Liberator, which raises the question of whether Reed initially intended the play to be read as an article written in dramatic structure, or actually performed with actors.  The play was written sometime in the six weeks between the end of the Peace Conference on January 20, and the beginning of March,(8) when it appeared in The Liberator.  Kenton writes that “Jack had sent us the play from Paris where he was attending the famous peace conference,”(9) but all biographies of Reed and Bryant have him located in New York City or in their cottage upstate in Croton-on-the-Hudson in January during the dates of the Conference.  Given this fact, and that the play had not been announced for the bill prior to its delay, did publication in The Liberator give Cook the idea to have it performed by the Players?  Reed wrote the play with stage directions and a setting difficult to execute on stage, such as: “The dialogue is carried on by each Delegate in his native tongue—but this presents no difficulties, as all understand one another perfectly.”  The set called for a “heavily-ornate mantel of white marble, surmounted by a Clock, above which rises the marble statue of a woman holding a torch…The Clock is fifty years slow,” and a fireplace in which a character is inside “thrusting up the chimney with a poker.  Three persons come rattling down, covered with soot” and the Latin-American Delegates on the sill of a window who “with a noble gesture he sweeps. . . off the sill.”(10)  The end of the play has a “mighty chorus singing the ‘Caramgnole,’ the people of Paris marching on the Palais d’Orsay,”(11) and other oddities, actions and/or settings difficult to create for the stage.  Obviously these directions were for satirical and political commentary, so one questions Reed’s intentions for actual dramatic manifestation.  Sarlos has written “as a direct vitriolic satire on the Versailles Peace Conference, it introduced into New York the traditional European political cabaret as fortified by a generous dose of Soviet ‘agit-prop’ techniques.”(12)

Regardless of what Reed’s original intention might have been, the play was staged by the Players for the Fifth Bill; but, because of its intense satirizing of major political figures, the cast wasn’t listed in the program for fear of governmental censure.  However, Kenton later recalled that “Jack Kelly played Woodrow Wilson, and Billy Denham, Lloyd-George.  Who played Clemenceau and the rest I have forgotten . . .”(13)   As the program for the bill testified, the play was staged as a “cartoon,” with “drawn-to-life masks.”(14)  Sarlos describes that “beaverboard profile cut-outs patterned on current caricatures of the major Delegates were strung on wires at various depths of the stage.  These figures were then pulled on and off stage; they could be flipped down at the conclusion of a major speech.”(15)  Kenton and Sarlos both describe that the smaller nations’ delegates were “dummies, thrown out of the window,”(16) or “swept off the window-sill as required by the script.”(17)

Reed’s bitterness at the war and his general disgust for President Wilson’s policies, including his famous Fourteen Points under which Germany agreed to surrender, even though the other allies had not agreed to negotiate based on them, led to his making Wilson the “chief villain” of the play.(18)  Jabs are taken at President Wilson’s love of theatre when Lloyd-George says, “I don’t want to be late for the Follies Bergeres; going to the theatre is another method of government which we have learned from Mr. Wilson.”(19)  Serbian, Belgium, Teckno-Slovak, Armenian, Yugo-Slav, Polish, and Latin-American delegates are found hidden behind and under things on the set, and are thrown out as it is explained by the five major powers why they are not welcome.  Wilson is asked by the other delegates to explain his Fourteen Points, assuring him “we know it’s all right, but there is anxiety in certain quarters,”(20) and many of the points are dissected and then explained by “Wilsonisms,” ambiguous but impressive-sounding rhetoric that does not really answer any questions.  The major power delegates seem truly impressed with the Wilson rhetoric, the Japanese delegate Makino exclaiming, “It’s worth coming all the way from Japan just to hear him!”(21)  When the same colleague suggests that Wilson write a statement to the press for them about the conference, the others pull out a pair of dice and roll for a “friendly settlement of the German possessions.”(22)  Reed then has messengers deliver cablegrams that inform each of the delegates of some consequence in their country because of their attending the conference: Wilson is informed he’s been impeached for invading Russia without a declaration of war; Orlando is informed that the revolution in Italy has been victorious and that “Rome is in the hands of the Sovietti”;(23) Lloyd-George is informed that Sylvia Pankhurst, an influential British socialist feminist, has been made Premier of Great Britain; Makino is told that “infuriated people, unable to get rice, have eaten the Mikado.”  The play ends with the delegates trying to exit to “live under a stable Government” and Wilson informing them that this could only be found in Moscow.  As the curtain comes down and the delegates are marching out in single file, Wilson encourages them to not give up hope yet, saying “Words are words in all languages—and Russians are doubtless human—and I still retain my powers of speech.”(24)

Kenton writes that “we were highly criticized for putting on this ‘cartoon,’ even for protecting the players.”(25) Its brevity caused the New York Herald reviewer to call the work a “skit,” though he says it was a “novel and clear idea in dramatic form,” and that it was “childish,” further digging at it with “this skit was exactly the sort of thing bright boys of ten or eleven years, who remember long words, do as a nursery theatricals on Saturdays, with the help of patient grandmas.”(26)  Broun in the New York Tribune claimed that the piece “has piercingly bright lines, but it is not consistently good burlesque.”  He confirms that “Wilson is his chief target,” and that “the burlesque is effective just so long as the character is portrayed as being unaware of the weaknesses in which he is lampooned.”  However, he adds, “when on an occasion or two Wilson is allowed to speak of himself, not from his own point of view, but from the point of view of Jack Reed, the burlesque loses its effectiveness.”(27)  New York Times critic John Corbin, denoting a certain fear of being too positive about the content in Reed’s play, coyly writes that the play “shows the true modus operandi of the world’s pacificators at Paris, and especially of their master. ‘May I not’ be excused from saying who he is, and from detailing Mr. Reed’s characterization of his methods?”(28)

The fifth bill opened two days after Reed’s book Ten Days That Shook the World was released, thrusting him into an even brighter spotlight on the national and international scene, and thus on the Players as well.  Reed biographer Rosenstone reports that Reed viewed the play on the March 25 and “was pleased with the amusement of the audience.”(29)  Hutchins Hapgood wrote of Reed that “Jack was keen about ‘ideas’; not interested in any play, or probably in any other literary form, that did not carry a sociological thesis.  He attempted to put over some of these ideas and in the attempt lost his quality as a writer, his feeling as a poet.”(30)  Many of his biographers speak of Reed’s constant yearning to get back to the poetry with which he had begun his career as a writer.  Biographer Granville Hicks tells of a snowy winter night during this period when Reed met author Sherwood Anderson on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street and  Reed, without a coat or hat, talked with him for an hour.  Reed pondered aloud to Anderson:

". . . did a poet do more by lying low and trying to get understanding, or whatever it was poets were after, or by giving himself to the fight?  Reed didn’t know, he wouldn’t say the other way was wrong; but for himself, well, somebody had to do the fighting.  And yet: 'If I could be dead sure I had something on the ball as a poet. . .' he said.  He knew of course that he had plenty on the ball.  That was not the question.  It was too bad, but the poetry would have to wait."(31)

Reed had once admitted to Eastman, “You know, this class struggle plays hell with your poetry!”(32)  This man, who had been so energized in the summer 1916 by the ideas conveyed in the plays by the budding Provincetown Players, and who had led them with Cook to their new home in New York City, ultimately chose to contribute to the larger political cause, and this was the last play he would write.  Just five months later he began a trek to return to Russia, disguising himself as a sailor with forged papers and jumping aboard a Scandinavian freighter in New York City for the first leg of his journey.  He went from Stockholm across the Baltic into Finland in late October, and by mid-November was able to travel overland to Moscow.  Having promised Bryant this would be a short trip, he tried to return in mid-January 1920, but twice was forced to turn back.  On his third attempt through Finland in mid-March, he was found hiding in an engine room of a freighter and arrested.  Because he was carrying one hundred and two diamonds, a large sum of money and letters written by Trotsky and Lenin (both given to him by the Soviet government to help the American Communist party), he was charged with smuggling and placed in prison.  Convicted in April of smuggling, but with the unanswered charge of whether he committed treason toward the Finnish state, he was kept in solitary confinement in a prison in Turku.  He was finally released on June 8, 1920, traded by Russia for three Finnish professors.  But having been denied a passport by the US State Department, he had nowhere to go but back to Russia.  His dear friend Emma Goldman, who had been deported to Russia by the United States with Alexander Berkman in December 1919, found him in Petrograd with joints swollen from malnutrition and an ugly rash covering his body.  After recuperating, he attended the Second Congress of the Communist International, but, when his ideas were ignored, he resigned from the committee he served on, though he was later persuaded to rejoin. 

Bryant, making a separate harrowing trip to get to Russia, joined Reed in Moscow, where they were finally reunited on September 15, 1920.  A week later, Reed became very ill and was misdiagnosed with influenza.  A few days later came the true diagnosis of typhus, along with an order to go to Mariinski Hospital.  Reed died on October 17, 1920 with Bryant by his side; he was buried along the Kremlin wall, the only American to be honored like a Soviet Hero, a banner above his grave stating “The leaders die, but the cause lives on.”  Just a year and a half earlier, on a 1919 summer night in Truro, Reed and Bryant were joined by Cook and Glaspell who walked over from their house in Provincetown.  Anticipating his return to Russia, he confessed to them, laying under a big tree in the back yard, “It may surprise you, but what I really want to do is write poetry.”  When asked by the Cooks why he didn’t just do that, Reed replied, “I can’t, I’ve promised too many people.”(33)

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) This date is according to the Julian, or Old Style, calendar then in use in Russia, which moved dates by thirteen days; therefore, in the New Style calendar the dates for the first Revolution would be March 8 to 12.

(2) In 1922, the journal was taken over by Robert Minor and the Communist Party, and in 1924 was renamed The Workers' Monthly.  Many of the people who contributed to the The Masses and the original Liberator, were unhappy with this development and, in 1926, they started their own journal, the New Masses.

(3) Romberger 172.

(4) Romberger 175.

(5) Dearborn, Queen of Bohemia 139.

(6) Rosenstone 341.

(7) Wetzsteon 159.

(8) Gelb, in So Short a Time (224), implies that Reed wrote the play in late February 1919 after Bryant had left. “During most of the time Louise was away, Reed stayed in Croton.  Devoting himself almost exclusively to propaganda, he struggled briefly with a conflicting desire to return to ‘poetry’—not necessarily the writing of poems, but literature in general.  He wrote a short, satirical piece, in dialogue, called The Peace That Passeth Understanding.

(9) Kenton 99.

(10) John Reed, “The Peace That Passeth Understanding,” The Liberator, March 1919: 25.

(11) Reed, Peace 31.

(12) Sarlos, Provincetown259. 

(13) Kenton 99.  David Lloyd-George and Georges Clemenceau were respectively the British and French representatives to the Peace Conference.

(14) Kenton 99.

(15) Sarlos, Provincetown 259. In Sarlos’ Jig Cook and the Provincetown Players, he credits the source of this information as an interview with James Light on July 19, 1963.

(16) Kenton 99.

(17) Sarlos, Provincetown 259.

(18) David C. Duke, John Reed (Boston: Twayne, 1987) 107.

(19) Reed, Peace 23.

(20) Reed, Peace 28.

(21) Reed, Peace 28.

(22) Reed, Peace 28.

(23) Reed, Peace 30.

(24) Reed, Peace 31.

(25) Kenton 99.

(26) New York Herald, 24 March 1919, pt II, col. 6: 9.

(27) New York Tribune, 30 March 1919, sec. IV, col 4-5: 1.

(28) New York Times, 20 March 1919: 46.

(29) Rosenstone 348.

(30) Hapgood, Victorian 354.

(31) Hicks 329.

(32) Rosenstone 347.

(33) Dearborn, Queen of Bohemia 143.