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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Playing a Part

By Brander Matthews (1852–1929)

[Born in New Orleans, La., 1852. Died in New York, N. Y., 1929. Playing a Part. A Comedy for Amateur Acting.—In Partnership. 1884.]

SCENE: A handsomely-furnished parlor, with a general air of home comfort. A curtained window on each side of the central fireplace would light the room if it were not evening, as the lamp on the work-table in the centre of the room informs us. At one side of the work-table is the wife, winding a ball of worsted from a skein which her husband holds in his hands.

HE, looking at watch, aside.“This wool takes as long to wind up as a bankrupt estate.” Fidgets.

SHE.“Do keep still, Jack! Stop fidgeting and jumping around.”

HE.“When you pull the string, Jenny, I am always a jumping-jack to dance attendance on you.”

SHE, seriously.“Very pretty, indeed! It was true too—once—before we were married; now you lead me a different dance.”

HE.“I am your partner still.”

SHE, sadly.“But the figure is always the Ladies’ Chain.”

HE, aside.“If I don’t get away soon I sha’n’t be able to do any work to-night.” Aloud: “What do you mean by that solemn tone?”

SHE.“Oh, nothing—nothing of any consequence.”

HE, aside.“We look like two fools acting in private theatricals.”

SHE, finishing ball of worsted.“That will do; thank you. Do not let me detain you; I know you are in a hurry.”

HE.“I have my work to do.”

SHE.“So it seems; and it takes all day and half the night.”

HE, rising and going to fireplace.“I am working hard for our future happiness.”

SHE, quietly.“I should like a little of the happiness now.”

HE, standing with back to fireplace.“Are you unhappy?”

SHE.“Oh no—not very.”

HE.“Do you not have everything you wish?”

SHE.“Oh yes—except the one thing I want most.”

HE.“Well, my dear, I am at home as much as I can be.”

SHE.“So you think I meant you?”

HE, embarrassed.“Well—I did suppose—that——”

SHE.“Yes, I used to want you. The days were long enough while you were away, and I waited for your return. Now I have been alone so much that I am getting accustomed to solitude. And I do not really know what it is I do want. I am listless, nervous, good-for-nothing——”

HE, gallantly.“You are good enough for me.”

SHE.“You did think so once; and perhaps you would think so again—if you could spare the time to get acquainted with me.”

HE, surprised.“Jenny, are you ill?”

SHE.“Not more so than usual. I was bright enough two years ago, when we were married. But for two years I have not lived; I have vegetated—more like a plant than a human being; and even plants require some sunshine.”

HE, aside.“I have never heard her talk like this before. I don’t understand it.” Aloud: “Why, Jenny, you speak as if I were a cloud over your life.”

SHE.“Do I? Well, it does not matter.”

HE.“I try to be a good husband, don’t I?”

SHE, indifferently.“As well as you know how, I suppose.”

HE.“Do I deprive you of anything you want?”

SHE, impatiently.“Of course you do not.”

HE.“I work hard, I know, but when I go out in the evening now and then——”

SHE, aside.“Six nights every week.” Sighing.

HE.“I really work. There are husbands who say they are at work when they are at the club playing poker. Now, I am really working.”

SHE, impatiently.“You have no small vices.” Rising. “Is there no work calling you away to-night? Why are you not off?”

HE, looking at watch.“I am a little late, that’s a fact; still, I can do what I have to do if I work like a horse.”

SHE.“Have you to draw a conveyance? That is the old joke.”

HE.“This is no joke. It’s a divorce suit.”

SHE, quickly.“Is it that Lightfoot person again?”

HE.“It is Mrs. Lightfoot’s case. She is a very fine woman, and her husband has treated her shamefully.”

SHE.“Better than the creature deserved, I dare say. You will win her case for her?”

HE.“I shall do my best.”

SHE, sarcastically.“No doubt.” Aside: “I hate that woman!” Crosses the room and sits on sofa on the right of the fireplace.

HE.“But the result of a lawsuit is generally a toss-up; and heads do not always win.”

SHE.“I wish you luck this time—for her husband’s sake; he’ll be glad to be rid of her. But I doubt it; you can’t get up any sympathy by exhibiting her to the jury; she isn’t good-looking enough.”

HE, quickly.“She’s a very fine woman indeed.”

SHE, aside.“How eagerly he defends her!” Aloud: “She’s a great big, tall, giantess creature, with a face like a wax doll and a head of hair like a Circassian girl. No juryman will fall in love with her.”

HE.“How often have I told you that Justice does not consider persons! Now, in the eye of the law——”

SHE, interrupting.“Do you acknowledge that the law has but one eye and can see only one side?”

HE.“Are you jealous?” Crossing and standing in front of her.

SHE.“Jealous of this Mrs. Lightfoot?” Laughs. “Ridiculous!”

HE.“I am glad of it, for I think a jealous woman has a very poor opinion of herself.”

SHE, forcibly.“And it is her business which takes you out to-night?”

HE, going toward the left-hand door.“I have to go across to the Bar Association to look up some points, and——”

SHE, rising quickly. “And you can just send me a cab. I shall go to Mrs. Playfair’s to rehearse again for the private theatricals.”

HE, annoyed, coming back.“But I had asked you to give it up.”

SHE, with growing excitement.“And I had almost determined to give it up, but I have changed my mind. That’s a woman’s privilege, isn’t it? I am tired of spending my evenings by myself.”

HE.“Now be reasonable, Jenny; I must work.”

SHE.“And I must play—in the private theatricals.”

HE.“But I don’t like private theatricals.”

SHE.“Don’t you? I do.”

HE.“And I particularly dislike amateur actors.”

SHE.“Do you? I don’t. I like some of them very much; and some of them like me, too.”

HE.“The deuce they do!”

SHE.“Tom Thursby and Dick Carey and Harry Wylde were all disputing who should make love to me.”

HE.“Make love to you?”

SHE.“In the play—in ‘Husbands and Wives.’”

HE.“Do you mean to say that you are going to act on the stage with those brainless idiots?”

SHE, interrupting.“Do not call my friends names; it is in bad taste.”

HE.“What will people say when they see my wife pawed and clawed by those fellows?”

SHE.“Let them say what they please. Do you think I care for the tittle-tattle of the riffraff of society?”

HE.“But, Jenny—” Brusquely: “Confound it! I have no patience with you!”

SHE.“So I have discovered. But you need not lose your temper here, and swear. Go outside and do it, and leave me alone, as I am every evening.”

HE.“You talk as if I ill-treated you.”

SHE, sarcastically.“Do I? That is very wicked of me, isn’t it? You take the best possible care of me, you are ever thinking of me, and you never leave my side for a moment. Oh no, you do not ill-treat me—or abuse me—or neglect me”—breaking down—“or make me miserable. There is nothing the matter with me, of course. But you never will believe I have a heart until you have broken it!” Sinking on chair, C.

HE, crossing to her.“You are excited, I see; still, I must say this is a little too much.”

SHE, starting up.“Don’t come near me!” Sarcastically: “Don’t let me keep you from your work”—going to door—“and don’t fail to send me a cab. At last I revolt against your neglect.”

HE, indignantly protesting.“My neglect? Do you mean to say I neglect you? My conscience does not reproach me.”

SHE, at the door.“That’s because you haven’t any!” Exit, slamming door.

HE, alone.“I never saw her go on that way before. What can be the matter with her? She is not like herself at all; she is low-spirited and nervous. Now, I never could see why women had any nerves. I wonder if she really thinks that I neglect her? I should be sorry, very sorry, if she did. I’ll not go out to-night; I’ll stay at home and have a quiet evening at my own fireside.” Sits in chair in the centre. “I think that will bring her round. I’d like to know what has made her act like this. Has she been reading any sentimental trash, I wonder?” Sees book in work-basket. “Now, here’s some yellow-covered literature.” Takes it up. “Why, it’s that confounded play, ‘Husbands and Wives.’ Let me see the silly stuff.” Reads. “‘My darling, one more embrace, one last, long, loving kiss’; and then he hugs her and kisses her.” Rising. “And she thinks I’ll have her play a part like that? How should I look while that was going on? Can’t she find something else?” At work-table. “Here is another.” Takes up second pamphlet. “No, it is a ‘Guide to the Passions.’ I fear I need no guide to get into a passion. I doubt if there’s as much hugging and kissing in this as in the other one.” Reads. “‘It is impossible to describe all the effects of the various passions, but a few hints are here given as to how the more important may be delineated.’” Spoken. “This is interesting. If ever I have to delineate a passion I shall fall back on this guide.” Reads. “‘Love is a—’” Reads hastily and unintelligibly. “‘When successful, love authorizes the fervent embrace of the beloved!’ The deuce it does! And I find my wife getting instruction from this Devil’s text-book! A little more and I should be jealous.” Looks at book. “Ah, here is jealousy; now let’s see how I ought to feel.” Reads. “‘Jealousy is a mixture of passions and—’” Reads hastily and unintelligibly. “Not so bad! I believe I could act up to these instructions.” Jumping up. “And I will! My wife wants acting; she shall have it! She complains of monotony; she shall have variety! ‘Jealousy is a mixture of passions.’ I’ll be jealous; I’ll give her a mixture of passions. I’ll take a leaf out of her book, and I’ll find a cure for these nerves of hers. I’ll learn my part at once; we’ll have some private theatricals to order.” Walks up and down studying book.

She reënters, with bonnet on and cloak over her arm, and stands in surprise, watching him.
SHE.“You here still?”


SHE.“Have you ordered a cab for me?”


SHE.“And why not?”

HE, aside.“Now’s my chance. Mixture of passions—I’ll try suspicion first.” Aloud: “Because I do not approve of the people you are going to meet—these Thursbys and Careys and Wyldes.”

SHE, calmly sitting on sofa.“Perhaps you would like to revise my visiting-list, and tell the servant whom I am to receive.”

HE.“You may see what ladies you please——”

SHE, interrupting.“Thank you; still, I do not please to see Mrs. Lightfoot.”

HE, annoyed.“I say nothing of her.”

SHE.“Oh dear, no! I dare say you keep it as secret as you can.”

HE, aside.“Simple suspicion is useless. What’s next?” Glances in pamphlet. “‘Peevish personalities.’ I will pass on to peevish personalities.” Aloud: “Now, these men, these fellows who strut about the stage for an idle hour, who are they? This Tom Thursby, who wanted to make love to you—who is he?”

SHE.“Are you going to ask many questions? Is this catechism a long one? If it is, I may as well lay aside my shawl.”

HE.“Who is he, I say; I insist upon knowing.”

SHE.“He’s a good enough fellow in his way.”

HE, sternly.“He had best beware how he gets in my way.”

SHE, aside.“There’s a great change in his manner. I do not understand it.”

HE.“And this Dick Carey—who is he?” Stalking toward her.

SHE, starting up and crossing.“Are you trying to frighten me by this violence?”

HE, aside.“It is producing an effect.”

SHE.“But I am not afraid of you, if I am a weak woman and you are a strong man.”

HE, aside.“It is going all right.” Aloud, fiercely: “Answer me at once! Is this Carey married?”

SHE.“I believe he is.”

HE.“You believe! Don’t you know? Does his wife act with these strollers? Have you not seen her?”

SHE.“I have never seen her. She and her husband are like the two buckets in a well; they never turn up together. They meet only to clash, and one is always throwing cold water on the other.”

HE.“And Harry Wylde! Is he married?”

SHE.“Yes; and his wife is always keeping him in hot water.”

HE.“And so he comes to you for consolation?”

SHE, laughing.“He needs no consoling; he has always such a flow of spirits.”

HE.“I’ve heard the fellow drank.”

SHE, surprised, aside.“Can Jack be jealous? I wish I could think so, for then I might hope he still loved me.”

HE.“And do you suppose I can allow you to associate with these fellows, who all want to make love to you?”

SHE, aside, joyfully.“He is jealous! The dear boy!”

HE, fiercely.“Do you think I can permit this, madam?”

SHE, aside.“‘Madam!’ I could hug him for loving me enough to call me ‘madam’ like that. But I must not give in too soon.”

HE.“Have you nothing to say for yourself? Can you find no words to defend yourself, woman?”

SHE, aside.“‘Woman!’ He calls me ‘woman’! I can forgive him anything now.”

HE.“Are you dumb, woman? Have you naught to say?”

SHE, gleefully, aside.“I had no idea I had married an Othello!” She sees the pillow on the sofa, and, crossing to it quietly, hides the pillow behind the sofa.

HE, aside.“What did she mean by that?” Aloud, fiercely: “Do you intend to deny——”

SHE, interrupting.“I have nothing to deny; I have nothing to conceal.”

HE.“Do you deny that you confessed these fellows sought to make love to you?”

SHE.“I do not deny that.” Mischievously. “But I never thought you would worry about such trifles.”

HE.“Trifles! madam? Trifles, indeed!” Glances in book and quoting:

  • “‘Trifles light as air
  • Are to the jealous confirmations strong
  • As proofs of holy writ.’”
  • SHE, surprised, aside.“Where did he get his blank verse?”

    HE, aside.“That seemed to tell. I’ll give her some more.” Glancing in pamphlet, and quoting:

  • “‘But, alas, to make me
  • A fixed figure for the time of scorn
  • To point his slow, unmoving finger at!’”
  • SHE, aside, jumping up with indignation.“Why, it is ‘Othello’ he is quoting! He is acting! He is positively playing a part! It is shameful of him! It’s not real jealousy; it’s a sham. Oh, the wretch! But I’ll pay him back! I’ll make him jealous without any make-believe.”

    HE, aside.“I’m getting on capitally. I’m making a strong impression; I am rousing her out of her nervousness. I doubt if she will want any more private theatricals now. I don’t think I shall have to repeat the lesson. This ‘Guide to the Passions’ is a first-rate book; I’ll keep one in the house all the time.”

    SHE, aside.“If he plays Othello, I can play Iago. I’ll give his jealousy something to feed on. I have no blank verse for him, but I’ll make him blank enough before I am done with him. Oh, the villain!”

    HE, aside.“Now let me try threatening.” Glancing in book. “‘Pity the sorrows of a poor old man’—I’ve got the wrong place. That’s not threatening—that’s senility.” Turning over page. “Ah, here it is.”

    SHE, aside.“And he thinks he can jest with a woman’s heart and not be punished? Oh, the wickedness of man!” Forcibly: “Oh, if mamma were only here, now!”

    HE, threateningly.“Who are these fellows? This Tom, Dick and Harry are—are they”—hesitates, and glances in pamphlet—“are they ‘framed to make women false’?”

    SHE, aside.“Why, he’s got a book! It’s my ‘Guide to the Passions.’ The wretch has actually been copying his jealousy out of my own book.” Aloud, with pretended emotion: “Dear me, Jack, you never before objected to my little flirtations.” Aside, watching him: “How will he like that?”

    HE, aside, puzzled.“‘Little flirtations!’ I don’t like that—I don’t like it at all.”

    SHE.“They have all been attentive, of course——”

    HE, aside.“‘Of course!’ I don’t like that, either.”

    SHE.“But I did not think you would so take to heart a few innocent endearments.”

    HE, starting.“‘Innocent endearments!’ Do you mean to say that they offer you any ‘innocent endearments’?”

    SHE, quietly. “Don’t be so boisterous, Jack; you will crush my book.”

    HE, looking at pamphlet crushed in his hand, and throwing it from him. Aside: “Confound the book! I do not need any prompting now.” Aloud: “Which of these men has dared to offer you any ‘innocent endearments’?”

    SHE, hesitatingly.“Well—I don’t know—that I ought to tell you—since you take things so queerly. But Tom——”

    HE, forcibly.“Tom?”

    SHE.“Mr. Thursby, I mean. He and I are very old friends, you know—I believe we are third cousins or so—and of course I don’t stand on ceremony with him.”

    HE.“And he does not stand on ceremony with you, I suppose?”

    SHE.“Oh, no. In fact, we are first-rate friends. Indeed, when Dick Carey wanted to make love to me, he was quite jealous.”

    HE.“Oh, he was jealous, was he? The fellow’s impudence is amazing! When I meet him I’ll give him a piece of my mind.”

    SHE, demurely.“Are you sure you can spare it!”

    HE.“Don’t irritate me too far, Jenny; I’ve a temper of my own.”

    SHE.“You seem to have lost it now.”

    HE.“Do you not see that I am in a heat about this thing? How can you sit there so calmly? You keep cool like a”—hesitates—“like a——”

    SHE, interrupting.“Like a burning-glass, I keep cool myself while setting you on fire? Exactly so, and I suppose you would prefer me to be a looking-glass in which you could see only yourself?”

    HE.“A wife should reflect her husband’s image, and not that of a pack of fools.”

    SHE.“Come, come, Jack, you are not jealous?”

    HE.“‘Jealous!’ Of course I am not jealous, but I am very much annoyed.”

    SHE.“I am glad that you are not jealous, for I have always heard that a jealous man has a very poor opinion of himself.” Aside: “There’s one for him.”

    HE.“I am not jealous, but I will probe this thing to the bottom; I must know the truth.”

    SHE, aside.“He is jealous now; and this is real; I am sure it is.”

    HE.“Go on, tell me more; I must get at the bottom facts. There’s nothing like truth.”

    SHE, aside.“There is nothing like it in what he’s learning.”

    HE, aside.“This Carey is harmless enough, and he can’t help talking. He’s a—he’s a telescope; you have only to draw him out, and anybody can see through him. I’ll get hold of him, draw him out, and then shut him up!” Crossing excitedly.

    SHE, aside.“How much more his real jealousy moves me than his pretence of it! He seems very much affected. No man could be as jealous as he is unless he was very much in love.”

    HE, with affected coolness.“You have told me about Tom and Dick; pray, have you nothing to say about Harry?”

    SHE.“Mr. Wylde?” Enthusiastically: “He is a man after my own heart!”

    HE.“So he is after it?” Savagely: “Just let me get after him!”

    SHE, coolly.“Well, if you do not like his attentions, you can take him apart and tell him so.”

    HE, vindictively.“If I took him apart he’d never get put together again!”

    SHE.“Mr. Wylde is very much afraid of his wife, but when she is not there he is more devoted than either of the others.”

    HE.“‘More devoted!’ What else shall I hear, I wonder?”

    SHE.“It was he who had to kiss me.”

    HE, startled.“What?”

    SHE.“I told him not to do it. I knew I should blush if he kissed me. I always do.”

    HE, in great agitation.“You always do? Has this man ever—” Breaking down. “Oh, Jenny! Jenny! you do not know what you are doing. I do not blame you—it is not your fault; it is mine. I did not know how much I loved you, and I find it out now, when it is perhaps too late.”

    SHE, aside.“How I have longed for a few words of love like these! and they have come at last!”

    HE.“I have been too selfish; I have thought too much of my work and too little of your happiness. I see now what a mistake I have made.”

    SHE, aside.“I cannot sit still here and see him waste his love in the air like this.”

    HE.“I shall turn over a new leaf. If you will let me, I shall devote myself to you, taking care of you and making you happy.”

    SHE, aside.“If he had only spoken like that before!”

    HE.“I will try to win you away from these associates. I am sure that in your heart you do not care for them.” Crossing to her. “You know that I love you; can I not hope to win you back to me?”

    SHE, aside.“Once before he spoke to me of his love. I can remember every tone of his voice, every word he said.”

    HE.“Jenny, is my task hopeless?”

    SHE, quietly crossing to arm-chair.“The task is easy, Jack.” Smiling. “Perhaps you think too much of these associates. Perhaps you think a good deal more of them than I do. In fact, I am sure that to-night you were the one who took to private theatricals first. By the way, where’s my ‘Guide to the Passions’? Have you seen it lately?”

    HE, half comprehending.“Your ‘Guide to the Passions’? A book with a yellow cover? I think I have seen it.”

    SHE.“I saw it last in your hand—just after you had been quoting ‘Othello.’”

    HE.“‘Othello’? Oh, then you know——”

    SHE, smiling.“Yes, I know. I saw, I understood, and I retaliated on the spot.”

    HE.“You retaliated?”

    SHE.“I paid you off in your own coin—counterfeit, like yours.”

    HE, joyfully.“Then Tom did not make love to you?”

    SHE.“Oh, yes he did—in the play.”

    HE.“And Dick is not devoted?”

    SHE.“Yes, he is—in the play.”

    HE.“And Harry did not try to kiss you?”

    SHE.“Indeed he did—in the play.”

    HE.“Then you have been playing a part?”

    SHE.“Haven’t you?”

    HE.“Haven’t I? Certainly not. At least—well, at least I will say nothing more about Tom or Dick or Harry.”

    SHE.“And I will say nothing more of Mrs. Lightfoot.”

    HE, dropping in chair to her right.“Mrs. Lightfoot is a fine woman, my dear”—she looks up—“but she is not my style at all. Besides, you know, it was only as a matter of business, for the sake of our future prospects, that I took her part.”

    SHE, throwing him a skein of wool.“And it is only for the sake of our future happiness that I have been playing mine.”

    He holds the wool and she winds the ball, and the curtain falls, leaving them in the same position in which its rising discovered them.