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The String of the Samisen
by Rita Wellman


The final play of the ambitious third bill of the 1918-1919 season was The String of the Samisen by Rita Wellman, based on an 18th century Bushido legend.  Bushido refers to the “moral code principles that developed among the samurai (military) class of Japan,” which had been influenced by both Zen and Confucianism and first developed during their civil war period of the 16th century.  Some of the ideas and ideals that emerged from this tradition were martial spirit, including “athletic and military skills as well as fearless facing of the enemy in battle,” frugal living, and kindness and honesty.  The highest honor was to “serve one’s lord unto death” and the samurai was taught that his “essential function was to exemplify virtue to the lower classes.”(1)

Wellman had already contributed to the Players’ oeuvre with three significant plays, all with strong messages that spoke from a modern woman’s point of view.  She was also the first of the Provincetown playwrights, even before O’Neill, to be produced on Broadway when her play The Gentile Wife opened on December 24, 1918, produced and directed by Arthur Hopkins.(2)  Since this production had thirty-one performances, it is possible it was still running when the Provincetown’s third bill opened.

The String of the Samisen refers to the strings on a guitar-like Japanese musical instrument, and the legend says that if one of the strings snaps lovers will be parted.  This precursor is introduced when a string snaps as Tama, a samurai’s daughter, is having a lesson on the samisen with her blind teacher.  Tama’s sad life is revealed during this exposition: her first husband was cruel, and her second, merchant Katsu Mori, is kind but does not provide her with a fulfilling life.  Within moments after her teacher leaves, her lover Arinori appears, declaring her husband is his enemy and asking for her help to kill him.  After agreeing to help him, she informs her husband of the plan and begs him to leave.  His pride causes him initially to refuse, but he finally agrees to comply.  In sacrifice, she takes her husband’s place in his bed, and Arinori comes and follows through with his plan, not knowing it is Tama underneath the covers whom he kills.

Two of the critics refer to the play as a “beautiful” and “striking dramatic” picture.  Broun in the Tribune writes that the play is a “beautiful picture, but it does not move.”  He complains that, in his view, all authors of plays with “plots east of Suez” seem to feel “absolved from all obligations of brisk story telling.”(3)  Tidden in the Dramatic Mirror felt that “shortened about twenty minutes,” the play would “prove more gripping.”(4)  The cast included Otto Liveright as the samisen teacher, Rollo Peters as Arinori, Edna St. Vincent Millay as Tama, and Blanche Hays as her maid. 

The play was directed by Michio Ito, and the reviewer of the Morning Telegraph says he “directed splendidly.”(5)  Ito’s grandfather had been a samurai, his father an architect, his mother a zoologist, and he was the eldest of seven brothers.  Ito left Japan at eighteen to see Europe’s art and to study singing in Paris.   After witnessing Nijinsky dance at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris, of which Ito wrote “I see total art, combining dance, singing and music, for the first time,”(6) his focus changed decidedly to dance.  He was also deeply inquisitive about the nature of art and discussed it with his new friends Auguste Rodin and Claude Debussy.  After moving for a time to Berlin, he saw a performance by Isadora Duncan and later studied Dalcroze’s system of eurhythmics, which was based on body rhythm and used music as its medium; it seemed to have a certain correlation to the traditional Kabuki that he’d learned in Japan.  Though he spoke no English, he left the European continent for England when World War I broke out in 1914.  Once there, he quickly found himself poor and resorted to selling his clothes to be able to eat.  In London, he frequented the Café Royal, where he could speak with others in German and French, and where he met other artists and writers like Ezra Pound.  He was invited to dance at a party given by Lady Ottoline Morrell, who allowed him to use costumes from her closet, and was accompanied by Henry Wood, conductor of the Queen’s Hall orchestra.  It was here he met William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw.  Lady Emerald Cunard, a major patron of the arts in London, invited him to her home, and this led to more evenings where he would perform.  Ito was revived financially when he received a twenty pound note after one of these performances from Herbert Asquith, England’s prime minister, whom Ito had unknowingly sat next to at dinner, speaking with him all evening about Japanese art in German.  His time in London culminated in a series of concerts given in May 1915 that featured his choreography and a performance of At the Hawk’s Well by William Butler Yeats, whom he had also inspired, along with Pound, to experiment with writing plays in the Japanese Noh style.

Ito immigrated to the United States in 1916, where he remained until 1941, and primarily choreographed for his own company and for dance specialties interpolated into Broadway revues.  In 1916, he staged and designed the Washington Square Players’ production of Bushido, a “modern” play of 1746 by Takeda Izumo that went on to be produced in many little theatres across the country; Ito staged it with authentic Japanese theatrical technique.  Many historians speculate that Wellman was inspired by this production to write The String of the Samisen.  Ito also staged Tamura, with Noh translation by Fenollosa and Pound, for the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1917.  Not only did he stage Samisen, Ito helped the Players on this production-heavy bill with the traditional Japanese costumes as well.(7)

In the lead role of Tama, Edna St. Vincent Millay took on her most substantial role for the Players in a play that she did not write.  She wrote about the experience of preparing for the play in a letter to her editor W. Adolphe Roberts of Ainslee’s Magazine:
I can sing a Japanese song now, for all the world as if I had been born in Nikko, and my eyes are slowly beginning to turn up at the corners—for sitting on a cushion all day.  Soon I shall look like a wood-blocked Outomaro, with the colors put on a little bit wrong, that’s all.(8)

Much was going on in Millay and her family’s life during the time of this production; they were evicted from their residence at 25 Charlton Street and moved to a tenement at 449 West 19th Street, and Millay was sending poems to editors of magazines in hope of making money.  Though 1919 would prove to be the “time of her greatest artistic productivity in literature and drama,” the year actually “got off to a rocky start.”(9)  Because they were evicted from their apartment for having so much back-rent due, the landlord insisted they also find a new renter to take their place.  Fellow Samisen actor Rollo Peters, who had just become director of the new Theatre Guild, became that renter, mostly because he was in love with Millay and had proposed to her during the rehearsals for the play.(10)  He later offered her a $50-a-week role to play Columbine in a Theatre Guild production of Bonds of Interest.

The set for Samisen was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr. (1890-1978), always known as Lloyd, son of the internationally-famous architect and a landscape architect who had designed sets for Paramount movie studio in Hollywood when his money was low.  In 1917, Lloyd Wright married the actress Kirah Markham when the two were in California.  Markham had been a part of the Players before moving to Hollywood and, previous to that, had been a member of the Little Theatre in Chicago.(11)  In 1918, the two moved to New York for a year, “no doubt prompted by Kirah’s hope for work” and Wright’s “impatience with a slow Los Angeles practice.”(12)  Ironically, Ito’s father, Tamekichi, was also an architect in Japan and a friend of Frank Lloyd Wright, Sr.(13)  There is no known photo or drawing to show his set design. 

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(2) Robert Edmond Jones, a frequent Hopkins collaborator and continued friend of the Provincetown group, designed the three settings of this four-act play’s production.  Like its title suggests, the play is about a gentile woman who marries a Jew, but the play is not so much about the contrasting religious beliefs as much as the impact they have on her husband, who is the focus of the play.  The New York Times review of the play called Wellman a “playwright of undeniable attainments and still greater promise.”  Though the reviewer states that the “mechanics” of the play are “none too deft,” and in the content there is nothing new (in fact stating that “some of its ideas are years behind the times”), he claims the play had “cumulative dramatic force” and a “sincere desire of the playwright to play fair with both sides.”

(3) Heywood Broun, New York Tribune, 23 January 1919, col. 4: 9.

(4) Tidden, Dramatic Mirror, 8 February 1919, 197.

(5) Morning Telegraph, 20 January 1919.
(7) Kenton 96: “We had two costume plays on the bill—Japanese costumes for The String of the Samisen were easy compared with the 5050 AD dress for Robert Parker’s 5050.  Eighteenth century Japanese was.  Michio Itow [sic] helped us out on the Samisen.”

(8) Allan Ross Macdougall, ed. Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1952) 87-88.

(9) Daniel Mark Epstein.  What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2001) 138.

(10) It was announced in the New York Tribune on January 19, 1919 (sec V, col 4: 2), during the run of Samisen, that the Theatre Guild would open its first season in April, that a large uptown theatre had been rented, that two productions were in preparation, and that Rollo Peters would be the director of the new organization.

(11) Markham has simultaneously carried on affairs with Floyd Dell and the author Theodore Dreiser before marrying Lloyd Wright in California.  She had also appeared in Trifles and Inheritors. She had also accused Cook of operating a “producer’s couch” (Black, Women 13, 26, & 74).

(12) Alan Weintraub, Lloyd Wright, the Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998)15.

(13) Helen Caldwell, Michio Ito, the Dancer and His Dances (Berkeley, CA: U of California Press, 1977)ix.