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The Obituary

by Saxe Commins


The third play on the fourth bill of the Players' first New York season was Saxe Commin’s The Obituary.  Commins was the younger brother of Stella Ballantine, E. J. Ballantine’s wife, and was the nephew of Emma Goldman, whose notoriety had caused him some suffering growing up in Rochester, New York.  He was now a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, twenty-four at the time of this first association with the Players, and he loved literature.  He had spent some of the past summer in Provincetown with the Ballantines, his aunt Emma being there for a short time, and he saw the early work of the Players.  His wife, Dorothy, writes that Commins met O’Neill through Reed and that initially “their encounters were brief, but in the summer of 1916, while visiting in Provincetown, Saxe had occasion to spend many hours with O’Neill.”(1)  Both were shy, causing their friendship to take its time to be established, but Commins and O’Neill would eventually become each others’ most trusted friend until death.  O’Neill “found in Saxe a good listener.  They would discuss at length the books they had been reading,” which at the time included Stirner and Nietzsche.(2}  Commins changed his studies to dentistry because his family’s funds were needed to pay the medical expenses for his older brother Harry when he was stricken with tuberculosis.  Commins returned briefly to Rochester to establish a dental practice, but he ultimately came back to the city and to literature.  He began as O’Neill’s editor at Boni and Liveright and later O’Neill took him along when he signed with Random House.  Commins soon became one of Random House’s most important editors, editing authors that included William Falkner, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, W. H. Auden and Gertrude Stein.

The Obituary, subtitled “A Dramatic Incident in One Act,”(3) is described by Sarlos as “a somber domestic tragedy” and was directed by Commins himself.  No known script of the play exists today.  Sarlos describes that “the action commences after the funeral of one Mr. Foster.”  In a 1963 letter to Sarlos from Tracy L’Engle, who played Mrs. Foster in the play, she describes her character as a “witch type mother” and that she “looked awful—in deep mourning, made up to look like an elderly woman.”  E. J. Ballantine played Charles Foster, her son, which L’Engle describes as “the principal role,” and all she can remember is that at one point he lies on the floor at her feet.”  L’Engle was a young actress who “was waiting at the time to begin rehearsals in a young comedy part of a play by Virginia Kline that was scheduled for Broadway,” and was asked to play the role in Commins’ play when Mary Heaton Vorse “refused to play it when she found out it was such a disagreeable part.”(4)  The other actors in the five-character play were Lew Parrish as Mr. Westphal; Henry Marion Hall as Mr. Crowell, an attorney; and Mary Pyne as the maid.  The program states that the scene was “executed by Miss Whittredge,” meaning she designed the set.

© Jeff Kennedy 2007.

(1) Dorothy Commins, What is an Editor: Saxe Commins at Work (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1978) 2.

(2) Commins, What is 3.

(3) Kenton 48.

(4) Sarlos, Provincetown 113.