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The Rib-Person
by Rita Wellman


The second play on the sixth bill of the Players’ 1917-1918 season was The Rib-Person, a new play by Rita Wellman.  Sarlos labels it as “rather badly written,” its subtitle “A Farce-Satire in Two Scenes.”  However, he also described the play as being about prostitutes, led by Zelma and the girls she works with, only able to refer to a copy of the play in the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress, which it appears he never read himself. 

Thanks to Judith Barlow’s recent volume Women Writers of the Provincetown Players (State University of New York Press, 2009), we can now read the play for ourselves and can see that it’s not about prostitutes, but about three very different “new” women living in the Village, each an archetype that Wellman could easily have fashioned (and exaggerated, thus the subtitle of a “farce”) on women in the Provincetown Players and in the inhabitants of the Village.  Zelma is, however, something of a “kept” woman, called by her friends a “rib-person” because of her deep connection to the men in her life, even while appearing to be liberated.  The play opens with Pumpkin, who is a sometimes lover and paying Zelma’s bills, upset at Zelma, who is lying in her bed smoking with her dog Ploppy next to her, for flirting with Stan (who Zelma called “the boy” throughout the play).  She claims she never flirts, that she “simply take—or leave.”(1)  Pumpkin threatens to leave and engages Zelma in a verbal twisting of words and definitions of their relationship, eventually leaving, though saying good-bye many times before doing so.

As soon as he actually leaves, Zelma’s younger friend Lucille enters having been crying and upset after a fight with her father over her friendship with Zelma, who he forbids her to see again. Lucille tells her, “You see, father is so old-fashioned.  He doesn’t realize the progress of modern thought.  Father doesn’t understand freedom,” to which Zelma replies, “So you explained it to him, dear?”  One can see the farcical possibilities if played correctly.  The problem is that Lucille, in truth, doesn’t know “what’s wrong or what’s right” and that she feels “that [her] brain will burst if [she] doesn’t find out.”(2)  She’s hoping Zelma can tell her the answers, though Zelma asks her how she should know, and that she has left home, hoping Zelma can put her up. Zelma tells her that Pumpkin has left, thus her financial lifeblood, but that they’ll figure something out, perhaps go on a trip together to India, which Lucille knocks down with the reality of them having no money and deepening her quandary about what is true, asking “Why can’t writers tell the truth about life?” Zelma replies, “I suppose if they did no one would believe them.”(3) 

Next enters Doris, “dressed in a very masculine style, but very neatly” who is concerned with the news of the day, particularly of the war.(4)  When Zelma explains Lucille’s situation to Doris, Doris tells her “There are hundreds of things for a woman to do in this age.  All you need to do is to find them.”(5)  Once it’s clear from a newspaper report that the war in Europe is on, Doris declares she leaving “to get in it, of course.”(6)  Lucille declares she’s going with her join the cause, stating she can be a nurse, but Zelma wonders what she can be. Doris tells her to “Get in line” and Zelma decides “I’m going to do it.  Why not?  I’m strong. Haven’t men lived on my strength for years?  I’m courageous.  Haven’t I dared everything?  Girls, I’m going with you.”(7)  The first scene ends with the agreement that they’ll meet in a half hour at Doris’s house. 

Scene Two is a week later at night in the same room, with Zelma and the younger Stan sitting at her window, Stan with his head against Zelma’s leg.  In a kind of breathless sigh, each says “I love you,” followed by a long silence. After Zelma asks Stan what he was thinking about, he gives a ethereal monologue about the vastness of the universe and that ultimately only “two things remain true—eternal Law—and Love.”  When he asks her what she was thinking of, she retorts “Dinner.”(8)  This leads to a discussion of how Pumpkin needs her, her justification to use his money.  When Stan wishes he could take her to the end of the world, she says they can go to India together, though he doesn’t see how they will. She asks Stan to hide in Pumpkin’s room when she hears someone coming, who is turns out is Lucille to tell her she’s leaving with Doris to be a nurse in France.  Doris soon enters and they tell her that Doris has found a position for Zelma in a special unit with a canteen to France.  Zelma tells them she wants to go but can’t, using the excuses of Stan having a cold, and that she needs to stay and “do what I know how to do.”(9) 

As Doris and Lucille say goodbye, Zelma grabs their hands and we find out that Doris has told her once that Zelma is “simply a rib-person” and Zelma confesses that is what she is.(10) After they go, Pumpkin enters with his bag, declaring he’s come back.  Zelma tells him they’re going on a trip to India, but they’re also taking Stan because he has a cold and needs a change of climate and Pumpkin agrees “if he has a cold…”(11)  She brings Stan out and introduces him to Pumpkin, telling him they’re all going to India and the play closes with Zelma taking their hands as she says “And neither of you cares that I am only a rib-person, do you?”(12)

Zelma could easily have been fashioned on the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, who was notorious for her many affairs with men who all wanted to take care of her.  Lucille is likely based on Nani Bailey, who ran the Samovar tea room and closed it to go to France to serve in the war as a nurse. Zelma suggests to Lucille at one point that she could open a tea shop, and later she declares she could join the war with Doris and can “be a nurse if nothing else.”  Doris is likely fashioned on Sophie Treadwell, who briefly served the Players on the Production Committee in their first New York season before becoming one of America’s first famous female foreign war correspondents (and later the playwright of the expressionistic Machinal).  Stan is likely based on Andrew Dasburg, the young artist who had an affair with Louise Bryant when she was living with John Reed. 

Rauh played Zelma, with Norma Millay as Lucile and Nell Vincent as Doris, while the male roles were played by Justus Sheffield as Pumpkin and Charles Ellis as Stan the poet.  Listed in the program as playing himself is Ploppy, the dog.  Set in modern-day New York, the play was directed by Wellman. Wellman’s lineage and life were both interesting and filled with turmoil, and I suggest you read my footnotes for her play Barbarians on this website to learn more. 

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007, 2013.

(1) Rita Wellman, The Rib-Person, Ed. Judith E. Barlow, Women Writers of the Provincetown Players, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009, 95.

(2) Wellman 105.

(3) Wellman 108.

(4) Wellman 108.

(5) Wellman 110.

(6) Wellman 112.

(7) Wellman 113

(8) Wellman 114.

(9) Wellman 119.

(10) Wellman 119.

(11) Wellman 121.

(12) Wellman 122.