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The Philosopher of Butterbiggens
by Harold Chapin


Second work on the first bill of the 1919-1920 season was a play that was a bold break by the new regime from the mission and stated goals of the Players: they staged a play by a Brit (though technically American-born), and it had already been performed in Britain.  The Philosopher of Butterbiggins was written by Harold Chapin, who was born in Brooklyn in 1886 but from the age of two spent his life in Europe, finding theatrical success as an actor, stage manager and playwright in Britain.  Chapin, whose mother was an actress, stepped onto his first stage as an actor at the age of seven in a production of Coriolanus at Stratford-on-Avon.  He had a consistent career as an actor in England, had his first one-act plays performed in London in 1910, and later that year joined the Glasgow Repertory Theatre, accompanied by his new wife Calypso Valetta.  He returned to London to work as a stage manager for Granville Barker and, in 1912, his play Art and Opportunity opened there, resulting in critics calling him “one of the two most promising of the younger men writing for the British theatre.”(1)  More plays were produced after this, but Chapin enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corp in September 1914, feeling that, once the war was declared in Britain, it was a far higher calling than anything else.  He was killed a year later at the battle of Loos at the age of twenty-nine.  Not long after his death, a memorial performance of four of his one-act plays was given in London.  Following this performance, William Archer wrote that “the name of Harold Chapin is one of which America may well be proud,” citing his American birth, and that, “with the single exception of Rupert Brooke,(2) no English-speaking man of more unquestionable genius has been lost to the world in this world-frenzy.”  Archer declared that his one-act plays “show his talent at its best,” and it was at this memorial performance that The Philosopher of Butterbiggens was first performed.  Archer called the play “in the Barrie vein, and yet no mere echo of Barrie,” and that it had “delightful humor.”(3)  Chapin’s son played the role of the young son Alexander in this memorial performance.  Chapin’s mother revealed that Butterbiggens “is, are, and always will be a suburb of Glasgow.”(4)

How the play came into the consciousness of the Provincetown group is unknown, as is how Chapin’s sister Elsie, herself an actress who had performed with her brother in London, came to direct the production for the company.  The plot is quite simple: when a young Scottish boy is put to bed by his mother instead of allowing his grandfather to tell him a bedtime story, the grandfather begins to philosophize to his listening son-in-law about life, its purpose, and women.  The grandson, now off stage in his bedroom, is not happy about being put to bed and has begun to cry and scream about it.  His mother is worried about what the neighbors will think, but initially holds firm to her decision.  The grandfather, after much more philosophizing, states that he believes the purpose of life is getting one’s way and so, to achieve that goal, begins to scream much like his grandson until finally the mother relents.  The play ends as the grandfather starts to tell his grandson, now sitting on his knee, a bedtime story.  The dialogue is written in “modified Scots dialect” and is quite difficult to read on the page.  Drucker called the play “whimsical and charming,”(5) and Woollcott wrote it was a “delightful Scotch comedy.”  He also describes that at the performance he attended “the falsetto voice, usually engaged to lurk in the wings and express the shrill woe of wee Alexander, was absent at the crucial moment and there rushed into the breach the singularly unfortunate substitute—the Bull of Bashan—apparently.”(6)  Neither review mentions the performances given by James Light as the grandfather; Edna St. Vincent Millay as Lizzie, the daughter; or Ward Roege as John, the son-in-law.  The setting was designed by Light.  Sterling Leonard wrote in a 1921 anthology in which the play is published that “there is more shrewd philosophy in old David Pirnie [the grandfather], and more real humanity in his family, than is to be found portrayed in many pretentious social dramas and difficult psychological novels.”(7)

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) Sidney Dark, “The Record of a Life” from Soldier and Dramatist. The Letters of Harold Chapin. 1916.  <http://www.lib.byu.edu/~rdh/wwi/memoir/Chapin/Chapinbio.htm> Part of Brigham Young University’s online World War I Document Archive.

(2) Rupert Brooke was a poet who also died in the war and by some was remembered as a given a glimpse of the “golden” era in England just prior to World War I.  He was also called by Yeats the “handsomest young man in England.”

(3) William Archer, “Drama,” The Nation, 20 January 1916.

(4) Sterling Leonard, The Atlantic Book of Modern Plays (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1921) 284.

(5) Rebecca Drucker, New York Tribune, 16 November 1919, col 2: 7

(6) Alexander Woollcott, “Second Thoughts on First Night,” New York Times, 9 November 1919: XX2.

(7) Leonard 284-285.