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The Game

by Louise Bryant


Louise Bryant had been encouraged all during the spring of 1916 by George Cram Cook to contribute to the coming summer of plays in Provincetown just as he’d been inspiring her lover John Reed to participate in this communal venture.  She wasn’t the most beloved person in Provincetown, as many were protective of Reed and could see her flirtations with O’Neill, with whom she was having an affair.  Some may have been uncomfortable with her good looks and the confidence with which she evidently carried herself.  She may also have put off others if she ever hinted at the anti-Semitic feelings she expressed in her letters to Reed while he was away; she never got along with Ida Rauh, who was Jewish.  Vorse remarked that Bryant “thinks the revolution is so everyone can have a fur coat,”(1) and Emma Goldman once commented that she wasn’t really a Communist, she just slept with one.(2)  When Bryant’s play The Game was chosen to be produced on the second bill, Stella Ballantine, Teddy’s wife and Goldman’s niece, complained to Mary Heaton Vorse: “just because she’s sleeping with Jack Reed is no reason we should do her play.”(3) 
The Game is a four-character allegory play, an “English morality play” as William Zorach called it,(4) with the characters of Death and Life vying with a toss of the dice for the lives of the nameless “The Youth,” a male poet, and “The Girl,” a dancer.  Each of the two young people decide that their life is not worth living for lack of love, but Life helps them both realize that what they had called love was really just desire.  After The Girl dances to two of The Youth’s poems, they each decide they have now found real love.  A debate about the meaning of life and its value ensues, but ultimately it’s realized that the toss of dice will determine the young people’s fate: Life ultimately wins both tosses.  The play makes a strange jump out of allegory when contemporary references to the War are thrown in early on: at one point Life is willing to trade the two youths to Death for “Kaiser Wilhelm, The Czar of Russia, George of England and old Francis Joseph,”(5) and later for an army of soldiers.  When Death asks her why she cares so little for soldiers, choosing the two “dreamers” over them, Life replies that “someday the dreamers will chain you to the earth, and I will have the game all my way.”(6)  However, after Death leaves, she declares in the play’s last line: “I must never let him know how much I mind losing soldiers.  They are the flower of youth—there are dreamers among them.”(7)

Not one commentator or Bryant biographer gives the play’s writing good marks, calling it “ordinary,” “simple and not particularly brilliant,” “not much in itself,” and a “stilted attempt at a parable.”(8)  Perhaps the wisest decision Bryant made, thinking an “exciting stage set might put it over,” was enlisting artists William and Marguerite Zorach to design and direct the production, telling them they “could do whatever [they] wished with her play . . . .”  They responded without hesitation: “It was their first experience with the theatre and ours, too…We were full of ideas and eager to use them.”(9)  In the program for the November 1916 New York City performances of The Game by the Provincetown Players, the Zorachs, the only directors given credit that entire first season, wrote a note to the audience:

The Game is an attempt to synthesize decoration, costume, speech and action into one mood.  Starting from the idea that the play is symbolic of rather than representative of life, the Zorachs have designed the decoration to suggest rather than to portray; the speech and action of the players being used as the plastic element in the whole unified convention.(10)

One need only compare pictures of the dancers in L’apres-midi d’un faun, with their Egyptian-like poses, with pictures from The Game to see the same style of formalized gestures and positions the Zorachs directed their actors to perform.  William Zorach, who played The Youth, explained that “The movements were worked out in a flat plane in pantomime.”(11)  Murphy notes that the “non-representational abstract acting style for the play” suited Bryant’s “allegorical characters and pseudo-archaic dialogue.”(12)  The other actors were Helene Freeman as The Girl, whom Sarlos describes as a “suffragette who ran an antique shop”(13); Life was played by Judith Lewis, who was a model for artists in Provincetown(14); and John Reed played Death.

As a backdrop, Marguerite painted a large seascape designed with a Cubist influence in its use of shapes.  The sea can be seen through the trees, which take on the look of Greek columns, and lower to the ground are rocks and bushes that look somewhat like fans.   These shapes were symmetrically placed on either side of the backdrop, beneath the image of the moon, which was placed high and in the center and set within a diamond, its beam on the water shining down the center of the drop.  William Zorach described it years later in his autobiography: “The backdrop was a decorative and abstract pattern of the sea, trees, the moon, and the moon path in the water designed by Marguerite.”(15)  Emulating that first drop, William later created a linoleum cut for printing and the design was used as an insignia for the Players on their programs, posters, and early editions of the published scripts over the next six years.  Since the photos of the set are in black and white, and the linoleum cut was always printed in black ink, we will never know what the color scheme of the drop was, or see the brilliance of the colors she likely chose.(16)  I asked Bob Ipcar, grandson of the Zorachs, to ask his mother, the Zorach’s daughter, about the colors, and, though she had no recollection of them, she assumed they were “bright Egyptian reds, blues—something very bright.”(17)  In the September 10, 1916 Boston Globe article, the Zorachs are called “the most futurist of the futurists” and their work on The Game is reported to be “a series of pictures that looked like Egyptian reliefs.”(18)  The costumes were also designed by the Zorachs and they continued the Greek/Egyptian ancient look, with Death in a mask-like covering over the top of his head with holes for his eyes, Youth bare-chested, and the women in light-colored robes with loose-fitting bodices.  One wonders if Cook’s talk of a Dionysian community as a basis for theatre might also have influenced the Zorachs to explore a style of setting and performance inspired by Greek vases and art.  William Zorach simply states that: “It made a hit.  When the Provincetown Players went to New York, this was the first play they put on.”(19)

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) Murphy, Provincetown2/54.

(2) Black, Women 36.

(3) Sheaffer, Playwright 346; Black, Women 36.

(4) Zorach, Art 45.

(5) Louise Bryant, The Game, The Provincetown Plays: First Series, ed. by Frank Shay (New York: Frank Shay, 1916) 30.

(6) Bryant, The Game 41.

(7) Bryant, The Game 42.

(8) Sarlos, Provincetown. 37; Deutsch 13; Zorach, Art 45; Gelb, So Short 89.

(9) Zorach, Art 45-46.

(10) Provincetown Players Playbill, November 1916, Theatre Collection, Museum of the City of New York.

(11) Zorach, Art 46.

(12) Murphy, Provincetown 2/59.

(13) Sarlos, Jig Cook 25.

(14) New York Times, 24 September 1916, RPA4. Picture of Lewis posing for the Cape Cod School of Art students.

(15) Zorach, Art 46.

(16) Marguerite was so pleased when a few years earlier William had brought home paints from Europe where she said they were more brilliant in tone.

(17) Email from Bob Ipcar to author, 23 August 2005.

(18) “Many Literary Lights Among Provincetown Players,” Boston Globe, 10 September 1916: 99.

(19) Zorach, Art, 46.