Douglas Messerli

  Djuna Barnes' Roots  

The plays of Djuna Barnes are unquestionably some of the most curious works of American drama. Combining the realist settings and Irish speech patterns of the plays of J. M. Synge, an Oscar Wildeian sense of wit, and an often sentimental portrait of down-and-out New Yorkers, Barnes's earliest plays are, at best, odd amalgams of styles at war with one another. One must remember that at the time of the earliest plays – The Death of Life, At the Roots of the Stars, and Maggie of the Saints, – Barnes was 25 years old, and she was clearly seeking models. She had read Synge; she published an article on his drama in the New York Morning Telegraph Sunday Magazine in the weeks between the publication of her first three plays. Family members, on the other hand, purportedly had known Wilde; the family lore was that her great-grandmother had held regular salons which Wilde attended. Mentions of Wilde's Salomé, in particular, show up in Barnes's stories and journalistic writings several times. Accordingly, most of Barnes' early writing for theater, composed at the same time as the fiction she herself described as juvenilia, must be understood as experimentations in which she was working out in dramatic terms the theatrical influences of the day.

Rereadings of her plays, however, reveal far more interesting achievements than this summary allows. Already in A Passion Play, published in the magazine Others in 1918, but certainly by the time of Three from the Earth (first performed by the Provincetown Players in 1919), Barnes had begun to use a less realistic and more stylized language and action that would lead her in a direction theatrically much closer to her later work. Three from the Earth, for example, uses an almost tableau-like setting in which the three Carson brothers, "peasants of the most obvious type," crowded together upon a couch, serve primarily as provocateurs for the world Kate Morley as she recounts her affair with their father. Until the final moment of the play, indeed, there is no action: it is all a dialogue of possession, a war of words between the true inheritors of the father's love and the woman who has stolen and squandered that love (she is now engaged to a Supreme Court judge). When the youngest son – possibly the offspring of Kate and his father's union – steals a photograph and a kiss, the subject of the play is actualized, and the kiss simultaneously becomes a visual emblem of Barnes' theme.

Similarly, in The Dove, one of Barnes' most successful plays of this early period, we witness a world not unlike Hedda Gabbler's of two intelligent sisters' intense sexual and imaginative frustration. Like Hedda, these women keep weapons, knives and pistols, around them as emblems of danger and excitement, but their primary weapons are their tongues as they wittily spar with one another and the passive girl living with them, whom they have nicknamed "The Dove." Through the very fact of her youth, however, "The Dove" has the only true potential for danger and excitement and, for that reason, is the central object of their linguistic abuse and desire. Her retaliation – which in Ibsen would have become the subject of tragedy – is treated comically and wholly symbolically by Barnes, as the young boarder puts a bullet-hole through their "scandalous" painting of Venetian courtesans. Once again, Barnes's action, which in this case occurs offstage, brings the battle of wit into a concretized and static image that completes the play.

The same pattern of linguistic sparring that results in a visual denouement occurs time and again in these early works: in Kurzy of the Sea the hero's love for the "unnatural" is transformed into a wholesome sexual drive as a mermaid, thrown back into the sea, metamorphoses (again offstage) into a barmaid; the sexual freedom exposed by the castaway couple in Five Thousand Miles is contradicted by the discovery on their uninhabited island of an "eggbeater," which belies their isolation from civilization and symbolizes the result of any proposed union between them; Gheid Storm's attempt to sexually storm the walls of Helena Hucksteppe's self-sufficient disinterest in him and other men is visually presented in To the Dogs by his vaulting through her window sill, and his failure is realized by his doorway exit. In short, what we see in these early plays are the roots of the tableaux and emblematic structures of the great Nightwood and The Antiphon.

In several of these plays, Barnes wipes away all action, and explores instead the dialogue of wit. In works such as An Irish Triangle, Little Drops of Rain, Two Ladies Take Tea, Water-Ice, and She Tells Her Daughter, Barnes returns to the Socratic dialogues, one of the roots of theater, in order to push away from a naturalist drama toward a theater in which language, as opposed to setting, character, or thematic structure, dominates. There is no true response possible to Shiela O'Hare's recounting of the sexual arrangement between her husband and the lady (and/or possibly the lady's husband) of the manor house; Kathleen's bourgeois shock is simply a tool to keep the language and her story moving. Mitzi's outrage against Lady Lookover's dismissal of her and her generation in Little Drops of Rain simply spurs the witty maxims and homilies of the elder. The daughter's innocence in She Tells Her Daughter is merely a fact around which Madame Deerfont weaves the tale of her own murderous past. In these plays Barnes has stripped away action and setting in a manner that would be easily at home on the stage of Beckett, Albee, or Pinter. As Barnes biographer Andrew Field has suggested of Barnes' comedy of 1918, Madame Collects Herself, the play has less to do with influences of the time, particularly those of her fellow playwrights of the Provincetown group – Eugene O'Neill, Susan Glaspell, and Edna St. Vincent Millay – than it does with Eugene Ionesco.

Unsurprisingly, few critics of the day could make much sense of the plays of Djuna Barnes. While they all seemed to recognize something interesting was happening on stage (or, as Barnes bounded up and down the aisle, offstage), most reviewers were puzzled by the theatrical experience. Alexander Wolcott quipped of Three from the Earth, "[The play] is enormously interesting, and the greatest indoor sport this week is guessing what it means." Burns Mantle wrote of the same play: "It is probably the incalculable depth of the playlet that puts it beyond us. It is something that should be plumbed. But others must do it. We are a rotten plumber." Only S. J. Kaufman recognized Barnes's talent: "Miss Barnes' play is so near to being great that we hope that we shall be able to see it again. And we hope it's printed. ...Even now as we write the power, the simplicity and withal the incalculable depth of it has us enthralled."
Kaufman did get his wish. Three from the Earth was reprinted in A Little Review and, subsequently, in both Barnes's A Book and in its republication as A Night Among the Horses in 1929. However, none of these plays has been reprinted since until my edition of At the Roots of the Stars: The Short Plays of 1995.

Los Angeles, 1995

Reprinted from Djuna Barnes, At the Roots of the Stars: The Short Plays, Edited with an Introduction by Douglas Messerli. (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995). ©1995 by Douglas Messerli.