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Tickless Time
by George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell


The third and final play of the second bill of the 1918-1919 season was Glaspell and Cook’s play, Tickless Time, the first by either of them presented in the Players’ new theatre.  Tickless Time was the second and last play Glaspell collaborated on with her husband; it was also the last one-act play that she authored.  Similar in style to their first play, Suppressed Desires, the play is a farcical and satirical examination of the idea of “true time” that emerged from discussions between the couple in Provincetown that past summer.  Ozieblo contends that it was Cook’s own “fear of aging” that sent him into “an obsession with the mechanics of timekeeping.”(1)  Whether fueled by this “obsession” or not, Cook’s research led him to believe that the modern methods of calculating time moved it along too fast, causing him to consider rejecting the use of modern clocks in favor of the “true” time provided by a sundial.

Glaspell writes in The Road to the Temple that Cook enjoyed the solitude of modeling with clay after working with so many people for a long time, and that in the summer of 1918 he set about to create a sundial for their yard.(2)  During the process of creating their own sundial, Cook and Glaspell discussed the idea of true time, how living by it would set them against society and what the consequences of that might mean.  From their discussions, the pair together drafted a play, and then Glaspell did most, if not all, of the actual writing that became Tickless Time.  Deutsch and Hanau claim the play was a satire “on the fads of the younger intelligentsia,”(3) though it was more a satire born of their own consideration of the ideas.  Judith E. Barlow, in her essay “Susan’s Sisters,” points out that Floyd Dell in his memoir Homecoming “insisted that ‘The    Village . . . wanted its most serious beliefs mocked at; it enjoyed laughing at its own convictions.’”(4)  The popularity of Dell’s own satires and of Glaspell-Cook’s Suppressed Desires supports Dell’s claim.(5)  Set in Provincetown outside a two-story home very similar to The Cooks, Tickless Time begins with Ian Joyce and his wife, Eloise, observing the shadow on Ian’s newly completed sundial; they are relieved that Ian had finally gotten it “working right.”(6)  They compare their sundial as “first-hand relation with truth” against the falseness of clocks.  Ian decides that he wants to bury all of the clocks in their house in a symbolic gesture against “all that a clock world has made of us.”(7)  Eloise goes and gathers the clocks, but hides an alarm clock behind the sunflowers out of view of her husband, the first sign of a conflict with his idealized plan.  The play is peppered with comedic lines, such as when Eloise confesses to Ian that she likes “to hear the ticking of a clock” and she, holding up a cuckoo clock, declares “This was a wedding present,” to which Ian responds, “No wonder marriage fails.”(8)  Ian’s philosophy-driven condescending attitude begins to escalate, and he tells his wife when she confesses to liking the cuckoo clock, “You will go out to large things now that you have done with small ones.”  As Eloise worries about knowing when to catch the train to Boston to go shopping, when her appointment is with the dentist, or the confusion that would ensue if they invited people for dinner, Ian gets more philosophical, instructing her to tell the dentist, “you are living by the truth.”(9)

The play’s other characters enter: their neighbor, Mrs. Stubbs, whose watch has stopped, and who comes by looking for the right time but who leaves intrigued by their idea of truth; Eddy and Alice Knight, their friends who come for dinner; and their frantic cook Annie, who states she can’t cook without some kind of time piece.  Eddy asks about a complicated chart Ian has made, and Ian explains this it’s his diagram “correcting” the sun, finally confessing that there are actually only four days a year the sun tells the right “sun-time” and his chart is needed to tell the time all the rest.  This produces an immediate reaction from Eloise, who turns on Ian and declares “I want to hear the ticking of the clock!”  Eddy counters Ian’s philosophy by stating, “The ticking of a clock means the minds of many men.  As long as the mind of man has to—fix up the facts of nature in order to create ideal time, I feel it’s a little more substantial to have the minds of many men.”(10)  Though Ian makes one last effort to persuade Eloise that he’s correct, she finally goes berserk and starts digging the clocks out of their grave.  Ian responds by dramatically unscrewing the sundial from its pedestal and burying it where the clocks had been.  In resignation, he places the alarm clock on the pedestal and announces dramatically “We bow down, as of old, to the mechanical.  We will have no other god but it.”(11)

Rather than leave the ending with this simple resolution, Glaspell and Cook attempt something deeper and have a now-sad Eloise wistfully commiserate with Ian that she’d thought “life was going to be so beautiful” but that now she supposes “it will never be beautiful again.”  In a reversal of her previous behavior, she runs into the house, snatches the alarm clock from Annie the cook (who has taken it from the pedestal to finish making dinner) and reburies it.  As she does, Eddy, watching this scene, sighs “All is buried. Truth. Error. We have returned to the nothing from which we came.”(12)  With that, Annie the cook has had enough and leaves, suitcase in hand, but finally Ian goes after her and they return.  Alice and Eddy hear a cuckoo clock sounding beneath the earth, realize that Ian and Eloise have buried the clock they gave them as a wedding present; they frantically begin to dig it up, indignant at what their friends have done.  The playwrights ironically give the last action to Mrs. Stubbs; she returns and, after finding they’ve buried the sundial, begins digging it up, scolding Eloise for changing her mind on something she’d defended initially as “true.”  Ian, who replaces the sundial on the pedestal, says “The simple mind has beauty,” to which Eloise responds, “I want to be simpler.”  After comparing the difference in time between the sundial and the cuckoo clock that the Knights are holding, Mrs. Stubbs says, “Well, I say: let them that want sun time have sun time and them that want tick time have tick time.”  The cook then appears at the door and says, in a flat voice, “It’s dinner time!” and the play is over.(13)  

Gainor summarizes the play’s conclusion by writing “. . . the Joyces determine that, not surprisingly, a more balanced perspective is in order, and they decide to live in a world of both truth (keeping the sundial) and social conformity (keeping the clocks).”(14)  She also contends that the playwrights’ impetus to write the play was as a dramatization of Henri Bergson’s philosophy in his 1889 essay “Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness.”   She sees another inspiration in the writings of literary critic Leo Marx, as well as the responses to the growth of industrialism in America by those connected with the Village periodical Seven Arts, which included Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, James Oppenheim, and Waldo Frank, with whom Cook and Glaspell had contact.(15) 

By all accounts, this production of Tickless Time was directed by Cook, though the program states “by the authors.”  The set was by Louise Hellstrom, whose design was based on the description in the script:

A garden in Provincetown. On the spectator’s right a two-story house runs back from the proscenium—a door towards the front, a second-story window towards the back.  Across the back runs a thick-set row of sunflowers nearly concealing a fence or wall.  Back of this are trees and sky.  There is a gate at the left rear corner of the garden . . . A fence with sunflowers like that at the back closes off the left wing of the stage—a tree behind this left fence . . . The sun dial stands on a broad step or pedestal which partly masks the digging which takes place behind it.(16)

When considering the complexity of this description, if it was realized as written, and if you take into account what was attempted for the two plays performed earlier on the bill, one is mindful of the enormity of this undertaking.  It’s easy to understand the description of the frantic set change that precipitated the flying of the Moon of the Caribbees set piece out the back window as described earlier.  Unfortunately, there are no known photos or diagrams of this set.  In a 1963 interview with Sarlos, James Light, who played the role of Ian Joyce, described a “small trough, filled with sand,” that was “sunk into the stage floor to make possible the burial of clocks.”  He also described an incident during the run of the bill when something started an erroneous fear that a fire had started, which caused a panic in the audience.  Charles Ellis “jumped out from the wings, grabbed a shovel and took a stance ready to heap sand wherever needed.  When the panic was over, he picked up the shovel as if it were a guitar and started strumming it.  The audience burst into laughter, Ellis left the stage, and the performance went on.”(17)

Of the three plays on the bill, Tickless Time received the strongest approval from critic Heywood Broun.  He wrote that it was “easily the best of the three plays in the new bill,” but “the play suffers slightly from being allowed to run just a shade too long, but perhaps it was timed by a sundial rather than a clock,” referring to the elongated and somewhat surprising resolution of the play.  He also mentions the good acting of Norma Millay (as Eloise) and Jean Robb (as Mrs. Stubbs).(18)  Two of the Millay sisters appeared in this production of Tickless Time: Edna as Annie the cook and Norma as Eloise Joyce.  Deutsch and Hanau describe that Edna “assumed an almost unbelievable plainness as the protesting Annie.”(19)  Norma was beginning to come into her own as a strong, dependable actress in her second season of performing with the Players.  Though she would never achieve the notoriety of her poet sister (Edna called her “Hunk” or “old blonde plumblossom”)(20), she actually served the Players more often with her solid and consistent acting.  Jean Robb (Mrs. Stubbs), of whom little is known, performed with the players for the first time in the first bill of the season (as Sarah Levy in Gee-Rusalem) and earlier in the evening as one of the three Caribbean women, but is never again found in the cast lists of the Players.  Likewise, set designer Hellstrom is never listed amongst Provincetown personnel in the future.(21)  Alice Macdougal, who played Alice Knight, had appeared with the Players in seven plays the season before and would appear in O.K. Liveright’s Portland to Dover in the next bill, The Widow’s Veil and Woman’s Honor in the sixth (a review bill), and reprise her role as Alice Knight in the seventh (also a review bill).  Sarlos identifies Macdougal as Alice Foote Macdougall, who was the owner of a successful coffee and waffle restaurant in the Village that expanded to many and were very popular during the 20s and 30s.(22)  However, after reading Macdougall’s Autobiography of a Business Woman, the writer observes that she makes not one reference to participating with the Provincetown Players and, with the time-consuming events she describes in running her business during the period she would have appeared with the Players, they are most likely not the same person.(23)  In addition, when listing those in the Players who had died previous to 1921, Hutchins Hapgood lists Alice Macdougal as one who had died by this time, while Alice Foote Macdougall’s death was in 1945.(24)  The part of Eddie Knight was played by Hutchinson Collins, who had become one of the Players’ most consistent male actors.  This performance was notable in that it was the first time Glaspell did not appear in her own play when staged by the Players.

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) Ozieblo, Glaspell 136.

(2) Glaspell, Road 276-277.

(3) Deutsch 49.

(4) Barlow 290.

(5) Suppressed Desires by this time had already become widely produced in little theatres across the country.

(6) Glaspell, Plays 277.

(7) Glaspell, Plays 282.

(8) Glaspell, Plays 283.

(9) Glaspell, Plays 287.

(10) Glaspell, Plays 300, 301, 305.

(11) Glaspell, Plays 308.

(12) Glaspell, Plays 310.

(13) Glaspell, Plays 315.

(14) Gainor 90.

(15) Gainor also sees the work as similar to Suppressed Desires in that the playwrights “duplicate the comedy of philosophical extremes” (Gainor 87).  Anne Selwin Corey sees the character of Mrs. Stubbs as part of a through-line of characters in Glaspell’s plays that show the belief that “an intuitive path to knowledge is more direct than an intellectual one,” and these characters have “less difficulty than the more intellectual characters in sensing the truth” [Anne Selman Corey, Susan Glaspell, Playwright of Social Consciousness, Diss., New York University, 1990 (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1990) 199].

(16) Glaspell, Plays 275.

(17) Sarlos, Jig 245-246.

(18) Heywood Broun, “Susan Glaspell and George Cook Have Bright One-Act Play,” New York Herald Tribune, 23 December 1918: 9.

(19) Deutsch 49.

(20) Black, Women 80.

(21) Washington Square player (and later one of the founders of the Theatre Guild) Lawrence Langer describes meeting Louise Hellstrom in the summer of 1918 at an artist colony in Woodstock, NY and describes her as a “red-haired maenad” (a frenzied woman, as if member of the orgiastic cult of Dionysus) (Langner, The Magic Curtain 108).

(22) The restaurants were an offshoot of a coffee business she began in 1907 after her husband died and she was a single mother; the business would go on to be worth $2.5 million.  Many of Macdougall’s aphorisms and adages about being in business continue to be used in business courses and publications globally. 

(23) Alice Foote Macdougall’s birth year was 1867, which would have made her fifty-one years of age in 1918.  Not that this was impossible to have her portray the part of Alice Knight with Hutchinson Collins, who was twenty years younger in his thirties, but this seems a strange bit of casting, adding further doubt that the Alice Macdougal listed in the program was the same woman. Also, I was able to correspond with Macdougall’s great-granddaughter, Caroline, and inquire as to her having knowledge of her great-grandmother’s participation in the Players.  She replied that she’d be very surprised if this were true since “she was very busy running her restaurants” and, if she had participated, “no one I know of in my family knows about it.” Email from Caroline Macdougall, June 12, 2002. 

(24) George Cram Cook and Frank Shay, eds. The Provincetown Plays. (Cincinnati, OH: Stewart Kidd Co., 1921) 5.