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The Prodigal Son

by Harry Kemp


Harry Kemp's The Prodigal Son had a rocky history during the first New York Season of the Provincetown Players. Though it was not produced until the eighth bill of the Players first New York season, evidently it was originally planned earlier for the third bill, but Kemp had to be “fired” from the bill because “he sneered too freely at being directed by his peers.”(1) Kenton reports that Kemp left “vowing that until he was allowed to act in it we should not produce it.”(2)  The first mention of the play is in a letter from Cook to Glaspell dated December 11, 1916, telling her the play “isn’t good enough.”(3)  This confuses the issue somewhat since this letter post-dates the third bill; further confused by Kenton not mentioning the incident until discussion of the eighth bill of the season, when The Prodigal Son was finally staged.  However, one can definitively say that Kemp was not involved as a cast member in any play following the second bill the rest of the season, though he does attend the holiday party at the Samovar just a few weeks later.

The Eighth Bill not only reinvigorated the Players’ original goals to present new plays by American writers, but it signaled the return of Kemp to the fold.  Harry Kemp was one of the most nationally infamous individuals living in the Village.  Kemp learned early how to keep his name in the newspapers on a consistent basis, beginning in 1911, often with items of his own manipulation.  This included earning the title “The Tramp Poet” after traveling the world and landing at the University of Kansas to study; creating a national divorce scandal as a result of his affair with mentor Upton Sinclair’s wife; and finally, not only being caught while stowing away on an ocean liner to England, but being championed by that country’s literary giants upon his arrival.  Kemp biographer William Brevda says of the poet: “Life . . . would always be a great romantic adventure, a stage on which to enact a variety of favorite roles, a drama in which he could become his own hero.”(4)  His first published book was a four-act play, Judas, released in 1913, followed by a long narrative poem and collections of his poetry.  He became deeply embedded in the life of the Village, was a regular at the Liberal Club and was even offered the regular-paying job of assistant editor for the Masses by Max Eastman.  He took the job for only a day and then resigned, writing Eastman “I must live and die a poet. I find that it cuts into my own flow of thought to edit others’ mss.”(5)  Instead, he preferred to live hand-to-mouth, selling his poems to whoever would buy them.

Kemp was part of the summer plays in 1916 in Provincetown, MA, involved mainly as an actor in a number of bills.  Though he was known primarily as a writer, ironically it was a tiff over his acting and being directed by a group in the Players’ free-for-all style that ultimately separated him from them in late November 1916.  As a result, he took his yet-to-be-produced play The Prodigal Son with him, which some of the Players deemed an unfortunate loss.  By all evaluations, including my own, it couldn’t have been the Players’ deep desire to produce this The Prodigal Son that caused them to ask him back for the eighth bill; Deutsch called it a “heavy-footed” comedy,(6) Cook telling Glaspell baldly it wasn’t “good enough,”(7) and Sarlos assumes that the Players must have lacked a play to round out the bill, for “why else would they have ‘coaxed back’ a bad play from a member who had been recently fired?”(8)  The clue may singularly be found in Kenton’s statement: “When we reached the stage of authoritatively directed plays we thought of Harry again. . .”(9)  Perhaps it was an acknowledgment of his frustration with the group direction.  It also must have been an awkward situation to have Kemp’s wife, Mary Pyne, so involved and becoming more vital as an actress to the Players while he stood outside the group.
Kenton reports they “gave his play to Freddy Burt to direct, gave Harry to Freddy Burt to direct, and awaited the result.”(10)  Strangely, Kemp did not perform in the play, though his wife did, but instead played a role in Glaspell’s The People on the same bill.  Frederic Burt was a professional New York actor who also co-founded the Modern School of Art on Washington Square that had held classes in Provincetown that past summer.  Burt had participated in Provincetown with the Players, but disappeared from the group’s activities once they returned to New York that fall.  Kenton mentions that they “called Freddy Burt back” and then later that, once performances began of the eighth bill, “Broadway trooped down, to see what “Freddy” and “Margaret” were doing with amateurs” (“Margaret” is Margaret Wycherly, who directed Cocaine on the same bill).(11)  It is probable, as indicated by Kenton’s comments, that Burt was busy working in professional theater, most likely on Broadway, though one can find no records of his work during this period.  Kenton shares that, in her estimation, “the result was a good little play.”  Deutsch and Hanau write that Kemp attempted to write an “historical satire” of the type written by Philip Moeller and Robert Sherwood, but, as stated earlier, Kemp’s had already published plays of this style as early as 1913.  His play Judas was publishedin 1913 and, like Moeller and Sherwood’s plays, took a Biblical story and gave it a modern interpretation.  In Judas, Kemp portrays the title character “as a tragic hero.”(12) 

Kenton gives a rather long description of the plot of The Prodigal Son in her history of the Players, not typical of her description of other plays, and one gets the sense that perhaps she had a special affection for this play and might have been the force behind getting Kemp to return with it; it certainly wasn’t Cook.  The play takes the basic premise of the oft-told Biblical story of a son who has run off from his family and squandered his fortune, yet returns to be celebrated by his father as a disgruntled brother looks on.  The modern twist is that Levi, the prodigal, has told such enticing stories of his travels that both his brother’s concubine and fiancée, who each dream of being the kind of independent woman Levi has described live in Rome, individually come to him and ask him to take them to Rome.  In a rather farcically-written scene, both women try to hide in different parts of the same room because Simeon, the older brother, is at the door and threatens to do harm if Miriam, Simeon’s fiancée and Levi’s former love, is inside.  Levi and Miriam concoct an acceptable alibi for Miriam’s presence, but when Rachel, Simeon’s concubine, is discovered, their father suggests to Simeon that he sell her right away, to which Simeon agrees.  Once Simeon, Miriam and Reuben, the father, leave, Levi tells Rachel he will take her to Rome that night, and she can be called Ra-chel, the Phoenician dancer she’s dreamed of becoming.  When Rachel asks what Levi will do, he replies “why, I’ll be your manager!”(13)

Some of the core group of the Players were cast in the play: Lucian Cary as Levi, Hutchinson Collins as Simeon, Donald Corley at Reuben, Ida Rauh as Miriam, and Mary Pyne, Kemp’s wife, as Rachel.  Pyne married Kemp in February 1915 when she was 21 years old, eleven years his junior.  Brevda notes that it’s “impossible to find a reference to Mary Pyne that does not precede her name with the adjective ‘beautiful.’”(14)  With striking red hair and gray-blue eyes, Lawrence Langner describes her as having had “creamy skin and red lips found in paintings by Henna.”  He goes on to say “she combined the charm of Mimi in La Boheme with the spiritual beauty of a Della Robbia Madonna. . .”(15)  Just as pronounced was her “inner beauty,” some claiming when she spoke “it was as if an angel spoke,” that “she never spoke with hurry or pressure,” and that she “was all kindness and patience; she was selfless and without vanity, possessed of a deep inner peace and vision.”(16)  Pyne had always dreamed of being an actress, but she found herself supporting her father and living in poverty, working variously as a cashier, dancehall instructor, and waitress.  Though it seemed an odd pairing to some when she married Kemp, she was his ideal woman for a poet and she quickly became part of the Village community.(17)  This affection extended beyond Kemp: “everyone who knew Mary agreed she was the perfect woman,” causing many men in the Village to fall in love with her.(18)  Her first acting role with the Players was in O’Neill’s Before Breakfast in December 1916, ironically playing against her kind personality as the contentious wife; Langner felt she played the role “with moving success” and called her “one of the most promising young actresses of the Provincetown Players.”(19)  Roles in The Obituary, Winter’s Night, The Dollar and Ivan’s Homecoming had preceded her playing Rachel in Kemp’s Prodigal Son.  Heywood Broun, theatre critic for the New York Tribune, wrote his first review of a performance by the Provincetown Players after viewing the Eighth Bill twice, and felt that Pyne was “seen to advantage” in The Prodigal Son.(20)  Cook designed the set for the play, which the script describes as “the upper or guest room in the dwelling house of the old homestead,” in “A Hill Town in Galilee, near Capernaum.”(21)

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) Kenton 53.

(2) Kenton 53-54.

(3) George Cram Cook, letter to Susan Glaspell, 11 December 1916, Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

(4) Born in 1883, Harry Kemp was raised by his Grandmother and Aunt after his mother died when he was four and his father responded by leaving and traveling the country to do various jobs.  At 14, he was sent to live with his father in New Jersey, but his hatred of school sent him to the work force, using his wages to purchase books.  He favored the poetry of Bryon, and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass became his “bible.”  In 1900 he got hired as a cabin boy on a steamer, traveling to Australia, China and the Philippines before being deported back to the US.  On his return, he traveled the coast of California, was jailed in Longview, Texas and, after returning to the east coast, the story of his travels made the newspapers.  Kemp sold an article recounting these to a New York paper.  Kemp then attended a prep school in Massachusetts and, after a stop in Chicago, showed up in Lawrence, Kansas at the University of Kansas, where the story of his travels earned him the title of “The Tramp Poet,” which he used the rest of his life.  In 1907, after some of Kemp’s poetry began to be published, Upton Sinclair, whose fame from his novel The Jungle was at its height, wrote to Kemp revealing his admiration and became a mentor of sorts for almost four years.  Their relationship ended when Kemp had an affair with Sinclair’s wife, Meta, in 1911. Sinclair made the situation public by immediately suing his wife for divorce and the scandal played out in the national newspapers for over six months, becoming a forum for comments about women’s independence, sexual politics and free love.  Kemp settled in the Village in 1912 and earned other titles: “the Don Juan of the Village,” given him by Village performer Bobby Edwards for his continual quest of erotic adventures; and the “Greenwich Village Byron” given him by publisher and critic George Jean Nathan.  In the fall of 1913, Kemp stowed away in first class on the Oceanic on its way to England, hoping to be forgiven by the Captain when he confessed after they were out to sea, but Kemp’s plan backfired when the Captain intercepted cables from newspapers asking for his story and Kemp was made to wash dishes and arrested when they landed.  Many of the British literati, including Ezra Pound and George Bernard Shaw, pleaded his case and were successful in preventing Kemp from being deported after his prison term.  In July 1914, Kemp returned from England to New York City and the Village.

(5) William Brevda, Harry Kemp, the Last Bohemian (Lewisburg: Bucknell U Press, 1986) 87.

(6) Deutsch 32.

(7) George Cram Cook, letter to Susan Glaspell, 11 December 1916, Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

(8) Sarlos, Provincetown 129.

(9) Kenton 54.

(10) Kenton 53.

(11) Kenton 52-53.

(12) Brevda 67.                             

(13) Harry Kemp, “The Prodigal Son. Smart Set, Vol. 52 (1917): 93.

(14) Brevda 97.

(15) Langner, Magic 111.

(16) Brevda 98.

(17) Novelist Theodore Dreiser, who fancied Pyne himself, was shocked when he found out she’d married Kemp, but the two remained friends.  He wrote a chapter in the form of a short story about her and her relationship with Kemp in his two-volume collection A Gallery of Women titled “Esther Norn.”  Dreiser recorded Pyne’s explanation for her marriage to Kemp, telling him the poet has “a love of beauty” and that to her “he is more like a little boy who is hungry for attention . . . I feel intensely sorry for him.  I can’t help it.  I know that he needs me, and I need to help him.  I feel better and stronger for doing it” (Brevda 101).

(18) Wetzsteon, Republic of Dreams 340.

(19) Langner, Magic 111.

(20) Broun, Heywood. New York Tribune, 18 March 1917, part IV, col2: 3.

(21) Kemp, The Prodigal Son 83.