A Play

By Wallace Stevens

Copyright, 1916, by Wallace Stevens.
All rights reserved.


Reprinted from "Poetry" (Chicago) by permission of Mr. Wallace Stevens and Miss Harriet Monroe. Applications for permission to produce this play should be addressed to Mr. Wallace Stevens, 125 Trumbull Street, Hartford, Conn.


A Play

By Wallace Stevens


[The characters are three Chinese, two negroes and a girl.

The scene represents a forest of heavy trees on a hilltop in eastern Pennsylvania. To the right is a road, obscured by bushes. It is about four o'clock of a morning in August, at the present time.

When the curtain rises, the stage is dark. The limb of a tree creaks. A negro carrying a lantern passes along the road. The sound is repeated. The negro comes through the bushes, raises his lantern and looks through the trees. Discerning a dark object among the branches, he shrinks back, crosses stage, and goes out through the wood to the left.

A second negro comes through the bushes to the right. He carries two large baskets, which he places on the ground just inside of the bushes. Enter three Chinese, one of whom carries a lantern. They pause on the road,]


Second Chinese. All you need,
To find poetry,
Is to look for it with a lantern. [The Chinese laugh.]

Third Chinese. I could find it without,
On an August night,
If I saw no more
Then the dew on the barns.

[The Second Negro makes a sound to attract their attention. The three Chinese come through the bushes. The first is short, fat, quizzical, and of middle age. The second is of middle height, thin and turning gray; a man of sense and sympathy. The third is a young man, intent, detached. They wear European clothes.]

Second Chinese [glancing at the baskets].
Dew is water to see,
Not water to drink:
We have forgotten water to drink.
Yet I am content
Just to see sunrise again.
I have not seen it
Since the day we left Pekin.
It filled my doorway,
Like whispering women.

First Chinese. And I have never seen it.
If we have no water,
Do find a melon for me
In the baskets.

[The Second Negro, who has been opening the baskets, hands the First Chinese a melon.]

First Chinese. Is there no spring?

[The negro takes a water bottle of red porcelain from one of the baskets and places it near the Third Chinese.]

Second Chinese [to Third Chinese].
Your porcelain water bottle.

[One of the baskets contains costumes of silk, red, blue and green. During the following speeches, the Chinese put on these costumes, with the assistance of the negro, and seat themselves on the ground.]

Third Chinese. This fetches its own water.

[Takes the bottle and places it on the ground in the center of the stage.]

I drink from it, dry as it is,
As you from maxims, [To Second Chinese.]
Or you from melons. [To First Chinese.]

First Chinese. Not as I, from melons.
Be sure of that.

Second Chinese. Well, it is true of maxims.

[He finds a book in the pocket of his costume, and reads from it.]

"The court had known poverty and wretchedness; humanity had invaded its seclusion, with its suffering and its pity."

[The limb of the tree creaks.]

Yes: it is true of maxims,
Just as it is true of poets,
Or wise men, or nobles,
Or jade.

First Chinese. Drink from wise men? From jade?
Is there no spring?

[Turning to the negro, who has taken a jug from one of the baskets.]

Fill it and return.

[The negro removes a large candle from one of the baskets and hands it to the First Chinese; then takes the jug and the lantern and enters the trees to the left. The First Chinese lights the candle and places it on the ground near the water bottle.]

Third Chinese. There is a seclusion of porcelain
That humanity never invades.

First Chinese [with sarcasm]. Porcelain!

Third Chinese. It is like the seclusion of sunrise,
Before it shines on any house.

First Chinese. Pooh!

Second Chinese. This candle is the sun;
This bottle is earth:
It is an illustration
Used by generations of hermits.
The point of difference from reality
Is this:
That, in this illustration,
The earth remains of one color—
It remains red,
It remains what it is.
But when the sun shines on the earth,
In reality
It does not shine on a thing that remains
What it was yesterday.
The sun rises
On whatever the earth happens to be.

Third Chinese. And there are indeterminate moments
Before it rises,
Like this, [With a backward gesture.]
Before one can tell
What the bottle is going to be—
Porcelain, Venetian glass,
Egyptian ...
Well, there are moments
When the candle, sputtering up,
Finds itself in seclusion, [He raises the candle in the air.]
And shines, perhaps, for the beauty of shining.
That is the seclusion of sunrise
Before it shines on any house. [Replacing the candle.]

First Chinese [wagging his head]. As abstract as porcelain.

Second Chinese. Such seclusion knows beauty
As the court knew it.
The court woke
In its windless pavilions,
And gazed on chosen mornings,
As it gazed
On chosen porcelain.
What the court saw was always of the same color,
And well shaped,
And seen in a clear light. [He points to the candle.]
It never woke to see,
And never knew,
The flawed jars,
The weak colors,
The contorted glass.
It never knew
The poor lights. [He opens his book significantly.]
When the court knew beauty only,
And in seclusion,
It had neither love nor wisdom.
These came through poverty
And wretchedness,
Through suffering and pity. [He pauses.]
It is the invasion of humanity
That counts.

[The limb of the tree creaks. The First Chinese turns, for a moment, in the direction of the sound.]

First Chinese [thoughtfully]. The light of the most tranquil candle
Would shudder on a bloody salver.

Second Chinese [with a gesture of disregard]. It is the invasion
That counts.
If it be supposed that we are three figures
Painted on porcelain
As we sit here,
That we are painted on this very bottle,
The hermit of the place,
Holding this candle to us,
Would wonder;
But if it be supposed
That we are painted as warriors,
The candle would tremble in his hands;
Or if it be supposed, for example,
That we are painted as three dead men,
He could not see the steadiest light,
For sorrow.
It would be true
If an emperor himself
Held the candle.
He would forget the porcelain
For the figures painted on it.

Third Chinese [shrugging his shoulders]. Let the candle shine for the beauty of shining.
I dislike the invasion
And long for the windless pavilions.
And yet it may be true
That nothing is beautiful
Except with reference to ourselves,
Nor ugly,
Nor high, [Pointing to the sky.]
Nor low. [Pointing to the candle.]
No: not even sunrise.
Can you play of this [Mockingly to First Chinese.]
For us? [He stands up.]

First Chinese [hesitatingly]. I have a song
Called Mistress and Maid.
It is of no interest to hermits
Or emperors,
Yet it has a bearing;
For if we affect sunrise,
We affect all things.

Third Chinese. It is a pity it is of women.
Sing it.

[He takes an instrument from one of the baskets and hands it to the First Chinese, who sings the following song, accompanying himself, somewhat tunelessly, on the instrument. The Third Chinese takes various things out of the basket for tea. He arranges fruit. The First Chinese watches him while he plays. The Second Chinese gazes at the ground. The sky shows the first signs of morning.]

First Chinese. The mistress says, in a harsh voice,
"He will be thinking in strange countries
Of the white stones near my door,
And I—I am tired of him."
She says sharply, to her maid,
"Sing to yourself no more."

Then the maid says, to herself,
"He will be thinking in strange countries
Of the white stones near her door;
But it is me he will see
At the window, as before.

"He will be thinking in strange countries
Of the green gown I wore.
He was saying good-by to her."
The maid drops her eyes and says to her mistress,
"I shall sing to myself no more."

Third Chinese. That affects the white stones,
To be sure. [They laugh.]

First Chinese. And it affects the green gown.

Second Chinese. Here comes our black man.

[The Second Negro returns, somewhat agitated, with water but without his lantern. He hands the jug to the Third Chinese. The First Chinese from time to time strikes the instrument. The Third Chinese, who faces the left, peers in the direction from which the negro has come.]

Third Chinese. You have left your lantern behind you.
It shines, among the trees,
Like evening Venus in a cloud-top.

[The Second Negro grins but makes no explanation. He seats himself behind the Chinese to the right.]

First Chinese. Or like a ripe strawberry
Among its leaves. [They laugh.]
I heard to-night
That they are searching the hill
For an Italian.
He disappeared with his neighbor's daughter.

Second Chinese [confidently]. I am sure you heard
The first eloping footfall,
And the drum
Of pursuing feet.

First Chinese [amusedly]. It was not an elopement.
The young gentleman was seen
To climb the hill,
In the manner of a tragedian
Who sweats.
Such things happen in the evening.
He was
Un misérable.

Second Chinese. Reach the lady quickly.

[The First Chinese strikes the instrument twice as a prelude to his narrative.]

First Chinese. There are as many points of view
From which to regard her
As there are sides to a round bottle.

[Pointing to the water bottle.]

She was represented to me
As beautiful.

[They laugh. The First Chinese strikes the instrument, and looks at the Third Chinese, who yawns.]

First Chinese [reciting]. She was as beautiful as a porcelain water bottle.

[He strikes the instrument in an insinuating manner.]

First Chinese. She was represented to me
As young.
Therefore my song should go
Of the color of blood.

[He strikes the instrument. The limb of the tree creaks. The First Chinese notices it and puts his hand on the knee of the Second Chinese, who is seated between him and the Third Chinese, to call attention to the sound. They are all seated so that they do not face the spot from which the sound comes. A dark object, hanging to the limb of the tree, becomes a dim silhouette. The sky grows constantly brighter. No color is to be seen until the end of the play.]

Second Chinese [to First Chinese]. It is only a tree
Creaking in the night wind.

Third Chinese [shrugging his shoulders]. There would be no creaking
In the windless pavilions.

First Chinese [resuming]. So far the lady of the present ballad
Would have been studied
By the hermit and his candle
With much philosophy;
And possibly the emperor would have cried,
"More light!"
But it is a way with ballads
That the more pleasing they are
The worse end they come to;
For here it was also represented
That the lady was poor—
The hermit's candle would have thrown
Alarming shadows,
And the emperor would have held
The porcelain in one hand ...
She was represented as clinging
To that sweaty tragedian,
And weeping up the hill.

Second Chinese [with a grimace]. It does not sound like an elopement.

First Chinese. It is a doleful ballad,
Fit for keyholes.

Third Chinese. Shall we hear more?

Second Chinese. Why not?

Third Chinese. We came for isolation,
To rest in sunrise.

Second Chinese [raising his book slightly]. But this will be a part of sunrise,
And can you tell how it will end?—
Contorted glass ...

[He turns toward the light in the sky to the right, darkening the candle with his hands.]

In the meantime, the candle shines, [Indicating the sunrise.]
As you say, [To the Third Chinese.]
For the beauty of shining.

First Chinese [sympathetically]. Oh! it will end badly.
The lady's father
Came clapping behind them
To the foot of the hill.
He came crying,
"Anna, Anna, Anna!" [Imitating.]
He was alone without her,
Just as the young gentleman
Was alone without her:
Three beggars, you see,
Begging for one another.

[The First Negro, carrying two lanterns, approaches cautiously through the trees. At the sight of him, the Second Negro, seated near the Chinese, jumps to his feet. The Chinese get up in alarm. The Second Negro goes around the Chinese toward the First Negro. All see the body of a man hanging to the limb of the tree. They gather together, keeping their eyes fixed on it. The First Negro comes out of the trees and places the lanterns on the ground. He looks at the group and then at the body.]

First Chinese [moved]. The young gentleman of the ballad.

Third Chinese [slowly, approaching the body]. And the end of the ballad.
Take away the bushes.

[The negroes commence to pull away the bushes.]

Second Chinese. Death, the hermit,
Needs no candle
In his hermitage.

[The Second Chinese snuffs out the candle. The First Chinese puts out the lanterns. As the bushes are pulled away, the figure of a girl, sitting half stupefied under the tree, suddenly becomes apparent to the Second Chinese and then to the Third Chinese. They step back. The negroes move to the left. When the First Chinese sees the girl, the instrument slips from his hands and falls noisily to the ground. The girl stirs.]

Second Chinese [to the girl]. Is that you, Anna?

[The girl starts. She raises her head, looks around slowly, leaps to her feet and screams.]

Second Chinese [gently]. Is that you, Anna?

[She turns quickly toward the body, looks at it fixedly and totters up the stage.]

Anna [bitterly]. Go.
Tell my father:
He is dead.

[The Second and Third Chinese support her. The First Negro whispers to the First Chinese, then takes the lanterns and goes through the opening to the road, where he disappears in the direction of the valley.]

First Chinese [to Second Chinese]. Bring up fresh water
From the spring.

[The Second Negro takes the jug and enters the trees to the left. The girl comes gradually to herself. She looks at the Chinese and at the sky. She turns her back toward the body, shuddering, and does not look at it again.]

Anna. It will soon be sunrise.

Second Chinese. One candle replaces

[The First Chinese walks toward the bushes to the right. He stands by the roadside, as if to attract the attention of any one passing.]

Anna [simply]. When he was in his fields,
I worked in ours—
Wore purple to see;
And when I was in his garden
I wore gold ear-rings.
Last evening I met him on the road.
He asked me to walk with him
To the top of the hill.
I felt the evil,
But he wanted nothing.
He hanged himself in front of me.

[She looks for support. The Second and Third Chinese help her toward the road.—At the roadside, the First Chinese takes the place of the Third Chinese. The girl and the two Chinese go through the bushes and disappear down the road. The stage is empty except for the Third Chinese. He walks slowly across the stage, pushing the instrument out of his way with his foot. It reverberates. He looks at the water bottle.]

Third Chinese. Of the color of blood ...
Seclusion of porcelain ...
Seclusion of sunrise ...

[He picks up the water bottle.]

The candle of the sun
Will shine soon
On this hermit earth. [Indicating the bottle.]
It will shine soon
Upon the trees,
And find a new thing [Indicating the body.]
Painted on this porcelain, [Indicating the trees.]
But not on this. [Indicating the bottle.]

[He places the bottle on the ground. A narrow cloud over the valley becomes red. He turns toward it, then walks to the right. He finds the book of the Second Chinese lying on the ground, picks it up and turns over the leaves.]

Red is not only
The color of blood,
Or [Indicating the body.]
Of a man's eyes,
Or [Pointedly.]
Of a girl's.
And as the red of the sun
Is one thing to me
And one thing to another,
So it is the green of one tree [Indicating.]
And the green of another,
Which without it would all be black.
Sunrise is multiplied,
Like the earth on which it shines,
By the eyes that open on it,
Even dead eyes,
As red is multiplied by the leaves of trees.

[Toward the end of this speech, the Second Negro comes from the trees to the left, without being seen. The Third Chinese, whose back is turned toward the negro, walks through the bushes to the right and disappears on the road. The negro looks around at the object on the stage. He sees the instrument, seats himself before it and strikes it several times, listening to the sound. One or two birds twitter. A voice, urging a horse, is heard at a distance. There is the crack of a whip. The negro stands up, walks to the right and remains at the side of the road.]


[The Curtain Falls Slowly.]