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The Two Sons

by Neith Boyce


The third play on the third bill of the Players first New York Season in 1916 was most likely produced as a last minute decision.  Mary Heaton Vorse wrote John Reed in Baltimore about the bill and told him: “They’re hurrying on that play of Neith’s The Two Sons for the third bill with only a week of rehearsal.”(1)  Evidently, the third play originally planned for the bill was The Prodigal Son by Harry Kemp, but he had to be “fired” from the bill, because “he sneered too freely at being directed by his peers.”(2)  Kenton reports that Kemp left “vowing that until he was allowed to act in it we should not produce it.”(3) The first mention of the play is in a letter from Cook to Glaspell dated December 11, 1916, telling her the play “isn’t good enough.”(4)  This confuses the issue somewhat since this letter post-dates the third bill; further confused by Kenton not mentioning the incident until discussion of the eighth bill of the season, when The Prodigal Son was finally staged.  However, one can definitively say that Kemp is not involved as a cast member in any play following the second bill the rest of the season, though he does attend the holiday party at the Samovar just a few weeks later.

The Two Sons is a one act by Boyce set in Provincetown, and its characters are a family of two brothers, Paul and Karl, their mother Hilda, and Paul’s fiancé Stella.  This play about family dynamics and the roles that pervade and control the perceptions of each for the other has a melodramatic feel in both dialogue and construction.  Karl, the more rugged brother, has just returned from a long absence working at sea.  Paul, the more genteel of the two, is an artist with a history of persistent illness, who lives with and cares for their mother.  Karl has taken Stella, Paul’s fiancé, out sailing and the mother believes he’s trying to steal Stella away from Paul, likening it to Karl stealing Paul’s toys as a child.  When Hilda accuses Karl of this, it brings up feelings of sibling rivalry that one quickly understands the mother has fostered.  The two brothers are alone on two occasions in the play.  In the first, Paul tries to convince Karl he should not go away again because it would break their mother’s heart, bringing up a discussion of how they were treated differently by their mother and how she was tougher on Karl than Paul, which Paul sees as a pitying kind of love.  Between the two brotherly discussions, the mother takes Stella to task for waking “the hatred between those two—the thing I’ve struggled against always.”  Stella reveals that she doesn’t think she and Paul are “suited to one another” and eventually leaves upset, Paul walking her home.(5)  Hilda confesses to Karl that Paul seems a stranger even to her, and counters Karl’s accusation that Paul doesn’t care about anything with, “He does, he does.  Too much.  Only—not as we do, not in the same way.  Things can never be as he wants them.  They’re not good enough, they’re not what he dreams.”(6)  In the play’s final scene, the second occasion in which the two brothers are alone, this time drinking, Paul tells Karl he can have Stella if he wants her.  Karl then offers to go away, naively shocked that taking Stella sailing and spending time with her would sway her heart.  He reveals he’s “never loved any woman” and believes “women are the devil. They’re always making trouble,” but that he always loved Paul, “even when I was doing things to hurt you.  That’s why I did them, perhaps, I could never reach you—you were always off somewhere . . .”(7)  Paul tells Karl he doesn’t hold anything against him, which relieves Karl to such an overwhelming extent that he reiterates how much he loves his brother.  The play ends with Karl going into bed calling Paul the “best fellow in the world . . . but dreamer.  Dreamer.  But I love you,” and, once Karl is out of the room, Paul “stretches his hands across the table, his fists clenched, and drops his head on his arms.”(8)

Ozieblo feels that Boyce’s play was “clearly exploring the consequences of over-protectiveness,” perhaps influenced by her own relationship with her son Boyce, who had endured polio in his childhood.(9)  She sees Karl’s inability to believe in his mother’s love as the source of his distrust of women.  Reflecting on the influence Boyce’s plays had on Glaspell and O’Neill as discussed earlier, Ozieblo feels that The Two Sons “touched Glaspell deeply” and she would address “a similar theme” in her story The Comic Artist in 1928.  Similarly, O’Neill would “explore a similar theme” in Beyond the Horizon.(10)

A cast of actors new to the Players, save for Lew Kirby Parrish, were engaged to perform The Two Sons.  Parrish played the artist son Paul, his prior Players involvement as Scotty in the first bill’s Bound East for Cardiff and as Smith in Freedom during the second bill.  Parrish was himself an artist and illustrator, known to have created the design inside the Village tea-shop Wigwam. Later he created the well-known illustration for the poster of The Emperor Jones.  Karl was played by Rene de la Chapelle, Hilda by August Quidington, and Stella by Augusta Cary.  Cary was the wife of Lucian Cary, good friend of Cook and Dell from Chicago, who had followed Cook as editor of the Chicago Literary Review and would later be known for both his fiction writing and as the long-time gun editor of True Magazine.(11)  Lucy Huffaker thought Boyce’s play was the “best thing she has done,” but Bryant wrote Reed that, in her opinion, the play was a “glaring failure,” claiming the audience was “giggling and toward the end roared with laughter.  It was really terrible . . . I’m sorry for Neith, but hope it makes Jig realize things.”(12)

© Jeff Kennedy 2007.

(1) Mary Heaton Vorse, letter to John Reed, 2 December 1916, letter bMS Am 1091, Harvard MSS Collection, Hougton Lib., Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

(2) Kenton 53.

(3) Kenton 53-54.

(4) George Cram Cook, letter to Susan Glaspell, 11 December 1916, Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

(5) Neith Boyce, “The Two Sons” The Provincetown Players, A Choice of the Shorter Works, ed. Barbara Ozieblo(Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994) 124.

(6) Boyce, “Two Sons”126.

(7) Boyce, “Two Sons”129.

(8) Boyce, “Two Sons”130.

(9) Hapgood and Boyce’s son’s name was Boyce Hapgood.

(10) Ozieblo, Glaspell 102.

(11) Floyd Dell writes in Homecoming (273) about Lucien Cary: “After being editor of the Post’s Friday Literary Review for a while, he had become editor of the Chicago Dial—that staid old literary weekly had become ‘modern’ too.  Then, if I remember rightly, it ceased to exist, or perhaps the job exploded, as jobs have a way of doing; anyway, Lucien set up a work-room in an attic, and started to write short stories.  Or rather he started in to write a short story.  Every day for weeks and months he came to us with a new version of the same short story, and handed it to us to read, and we said sadly but firmly, ‘No,’ and he went back up to the attic.  Finally he came down with a few pages, and we said, “At last!”  So he finished it, and sold it to Collier’s, and then got an editorial position on that magazine, and kept on writing short stories; and his wife, Augusta, in Chicago, turned over the Friday Review to Llewellyn Jones, and came to join her husband in New York.”

(12) Sarlos, Provincetown 105.