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Sweet and Twenty
by Floyd Dell


The final play of the fourth bill of the second New York season (1917-1918) had been started by Dell in 1916 and was written in response to being stood up by his love interest at the time, Margot, which caused him “to write a play based partly on the incongruity of their relationship: that of an overly serious young man in love with a young woman with few intellectual interests.”(1)  Sweet and Twenty is a comedy for four characters and Dell cast Millay again in the lead role, with whom he’d begun a romance after she asked him to read her the play weeks before.  A somewhat simple plot, The Young Woman (Helen) and The Young Man (George) meet in the cherry orchard of a property each is involved in potentially purchasing, though once this is found out, each is willing to let the other purchase the place.  They have seen each other in the real estate office the day before, but each thinks the other is married to the much older people they saw with them, and each reveals they were with their uncle and/or aunt.  Impetuously, but fearful of missing the moment, the young man, deeply attracted, declares his love for the young woman.  While she initially resists, being more rational, they end up in a kiss.  It is after their kiss they realize that neither of them is married, but now that there is no reason they can’t be married, they begin to approach the idea of their marriage to each other logically.  She declares she is not a socialist when he says he is--at least as far as municipally-owned street cars are concerned, for which she declares she has no interest.  She asks if he can dance and, when he says he can’t, she assures him he can be taught, to which he replies he doesn’t want to learn.  This produces a stalemate between them, leading them to decide there’s no way they could be married with these differences in spite of their deep attraction.  They therefore decide to say goodbye, though they never quite achieve it.  At just the moment they’re about to kiss again, the real estate agent comes upon them and, seeing them close to an embrace, exclaims he’s “too late!”(2)  He tells them that their respective uncle and aunt have arranged this because they want them to be married, and they’re waiting up at the house.  They plead with him to help them get out of having to get married and, in the process, the agent gives his view of marriage, declaring it to be “devised by the Devil himself for driving all the love out of the hearts of lovers,” and that marriage had become “incompatible” with modern living.(3)  The more he goes on telling them about the problems with marriage, the more Helen and George confidentially tell each other they think there is something wrong with the agent, Helen finally declaring, to George’s agreement, “He’s quite mad.”  A moment later, a guard comes upon them and says to the agent “Ah, here you are! Thought you’d given us the slip did you?” and tells Helen and George, “Escaped from the Asylum he did, a week ago and got a job here.  We’ve been hunting him high and low.”(4)  George asks the guard what’s the matter with him, and he replies “He went crazy, he did, readin’ the works of Bernard Shaw.  And if he wasn’t in the insane asylum, he’d be in jail.”  He tells them the agent was a bigamist, married fourteen times, all of the women saying he was “an ideal husband.”  The play ends with Helen and George deciding, in advance of facing their uncle and aunt, that they will marry, but Helen tells him he “can’t have that sunny south room for a study.  I want it for the nursery.”  George replies, “The nursery!”  Helen confirms, “Yes; babies, you know!” George’s curtain line is simply, “Good heavens!”(5)

The set for the show was designed, as for his last play, by Dell, and he describes it in detail in the published version of the play: “The cherry-orchard scene was effectively produced on a small stage by a blue-green back-drop with a single conventionalized cherry-branch painted across it, and two three-leaved screens masking the wings, painted in blue green with a spray of cherry blossoms.”(6)  Direction is credited to Nina Moise.  Dell also wrote the lyrics for a song for which Millay composed the music, Dell writing that it sounded like “one of the old English ballads of which it was an imitation.”  Millay sang the song as she entered to begin the play.  Though the lyrics are not in the published version of the play, Dell includes them in his autobiography, Homecoming, saying that he’s placed them there “for the pleasure of remembering her voice as she sang it”:

When I was a girl, my mother would say, “April-May!
There are the months to beware of the moon, “May-June!
And the blackbird singing upon the spray, April-May!
Beware my child of the blackbird’s tune.”  May-June!
When I was sixteen no more than a day, April-May!
I met a young man in the flush of the moon. May-June!
His step was light and his manner was gay, April-May!
And he came from afar, by the dust on his shoon, May-June!
I looked at him once and I looked away, April-May!
And my heart it asked but a single boon. May-June!
“I love you,” he said, “for ever and aye!” April-May!
For ever and ever—the blackbird’s tune!  May-June!
I could not leave him or send him away, April-May!
So we walked in the wood by the light of the moon. May-June!
I had clean forgot what my mother did say, April-May!
But I learned it all and I learned it soon. May-June!(7)

Again, no critical reviews of this play seem to exist, and this was the last play by Dell the Provincetown Players would perform.  Between Kreymborg’s score and songs and Dell and Millay’s song, music seemed to be part of this bill as much as it ever had in the Players’ season.

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) Clayton 150.

(2) Dell, King 92.

(3) Dell, King 95-96.

(4) Dell, King 98-99.

(5) Dell, King, 99.

(6) Dell, King 76.

(7) Dell, Homecoming 300.