Main Street By Sinclair Lewis Chapters 17-18

Chapter XVIII


SHE hurried to the first meeting of the play-reading committee. Her jungle romance had faded, but she retained a religious fervor, a surge of half-formed thought about the creation of beauty by suggestion.

A Dunsany play would be too difficult for the Gopher Prairie association. She would let them compromise on Shaw — on "Androcles and the Lion," which had just been published.

The committee was composed of Carol, Vida Sherwin, Guy Pollock, Raymie Wutherspoon, and Juanita Haydock. They were exalted by the picture of themselves as being simultaneously business-like and artistic. They were entertained by Vida in the parlor of Mrs. Elisha Gurrey's boarding-house, with its steel engraving of Grant at Appomattox, its basket of stereoscopic views, and its mysterious stains on the gritty carpet.

Vida was an advocate of culture-buying and efficiency-systems. She hinted that they ought to have (as at the committee-meetings of the Thanatopsis) a "regular order of business," and "the reading of the minutes," but as there were no minutes to read, and as no one knew exactly what was the regular order of the business of being literary, they had to give up efficiency.

Carol, as chairman, said politely, "Have you any ideas about what play we'd better give first?" She waited for them to look abashed and vacant, so that she might suggest "Androcles."

Guy Pollock answered with disconcerting readiness, "I'll tell you: since we're going to try to do something artistic, and not simply fool around, I believe we ought to give something classic. How about 'The School for Scandal'?"

"Why — — Don't you think that has been done a good deal?"

"Yes, perhaps it has."

Carol was ready to say, "How about Bernard Shaw?" when he treacherously went on, "How would it be then to give a Greek drama — say 'Oedipus Tyrannus'?"

"Why, I don't believe — — "

Vida Sherwin intruded, "I'm sure that would be too hard for us. Now I've brought something that I think would be awfully jolly."

She held out, and Carol incredulously took, a thin gray pamphlet entitled "McGinerty's Mother-in-law." It was the sort of farce which is advertised in "school entertainment" catalogues as:

Riproaring knock-out, 5 m. 3 f., time 2 hrs., interior set, popular with churches and all high-class occasions.

Carol glanced from the scabrous object to Vida, and realized that she was not joking.

"But this is — this is — why, it's just a — — Why, Vida, I thought you appreciated — well — appreciated art."

Vida snorted, "Oh. Art. Oh yes. I do like art. It's very nice. But after all, what does it matter what kind of play we give as long as we get the association started? The thing that matters is something that none of you have spoken of, that is: what are we going to do with the money, if we make any? I think it would be awfully nice if we presented the high school with a full set of Stoddard's travel-lectures!"

Carol moaned, "Oh, but Vida dear, do forgive me but this farce — — Now what I'd like us to give is something distinguished. Say Shaw's 'Androcles.' Have any of you read it?"

"Yes. Good play," said Guy Pollock.

Then Raymie Wutherspoon astoundingly spoke up:

"So have I. I read through all the plays in the public library, so's to be ready for this meeting. And — — But I don't believe you grasp the irreligious ideas in this 'Androcles,' Mrs. Kennicott. I guess the feminine mind is too innocent to understand all these immoral writers. I'm sure I don't want to criticize Bernard Shaw; I understand he is very popular with the highbrows in Minneapolis; but just the same — — As far as I can make out, he's downright improper! The things he SAYS — — Well, it would be a very risky thing for our young folks to see. It seems to me that a play that doesn't leave a nice taste in the mouth and that hasn't any message is nothing but — nothing but — — Well, whatever it may be, it isn't art. So — — Now I've found a play that is clean, and there's some awfully funny scenes in it, too. I laughed out loud, reading it. It's called 'His Mother's Heart,' and it's about a young man in college who gets in with a lot of free-thinkers and boozers and everything, but in the end his mother's influence — — "

Juanita Haydock broke in with a derisive, "Oh rats, Raymie! Can the mother's influence! I say let's give something with some class to it. I bet we could get the rights to 'The Girl from Kankakee,' and that's a real show. It ran for eleven months in New York!"

"That would be lots of fun, if it wouldn't cost too much," reflected Vida.

Carol's was the only vote cast against "The Girl from Kankakee."


She disliked "The Girl from Kankakee" even more than she had expected. It narrated the success of a farm-lassie in clearing her brother of a charge of forgery. She became secretary to a New York millionaire and social counselor to his wife; and after a well-conceived speech on the discomfort of having money, she married his son.

There was also a humorous office-boy.

Carol discerned that both Juanita Haydock and Ella Stowbody wanted the lead. She let Juanita have it. Juanita kissed her and in the exuberant manner of a new star presented to the executive committee her theory, "What we want in a play is humor and pep. There's where American playwrights put it all over these darn old European glooms."

As selected by Carol and confirmed by the committee, the persons of the play were:

John Grimm, a millionaire . . . . Guy Pollock His wife. . . . . . . . . Miss Vida Sherwin His son . . . . . . . . . Dr. Harvey Dillon His business rival. . . . . . . Raymond T. Wutherspoon Friend of Mrs. Grimm . . . . . . Miss Ella Stowbody The girl from Kankakee . . . . . Mrs. Harold C. Haydock Her brother. . . . . . . . Dr. Terence Gould Her mother . . . . . . . . Mrs. David Dyer Stenographer . . . . . . . . Miss Rita Simons Office-boy . . . . . . . . Miss Myrtle Cass Maid in the Grimms' home . . . . Mrs. W. P. Kennicott Direction of Mrs. Kennicott

Among the minor lamentations was Maud Dyer's "Well of course I suppose I look old enough to be Juanita's mother, even if Juanita is eight months older than I am, but I don't know as I care to have everybody noticing it and — — "

Carol pleaded, "Oh, my DEAR! You two look exactly the same age. I chose you because you have such a darling complexion, and you know with powder and a white wig, anybody looks twice her age, and I want the mother to be sweet, no matter who else is."

Ella Stowbody, the professional, perceiving that it was because of a conspiracy of jealousy that she had been given a small part, alternated between lofty amusement and Christian patience.

Carol hinted that the play would be improved by cutting, but as every actor except Vida and Guy and herself wailed at the loss of a single line, she was defeated. She told herself that, after all, a great deal could be done with direction and settings.

Sam Clark had boastfully written about the dramatic association to his schoolmate, Percy Bresnahan, president of the Velvet Motor Company of Boston. Bresnahan sent a check for a hundred dollars; Sam added twenty-five and brought the fund to Carol, fondly crying, "There! That'll give you a start for putting the thing across swell!"

She rented the second floor of the city hall for two months. All through the spring the association thrilled to its own talent in that dismal room. They cleared out the bunting, ballot-boxes, handbills, legless chairs. They attacked the stage. It was a simple-minded stage. It was raised above the floor, and it did have a movable curtain, painted with the advertisement of a druggist dead these ten years, but otherwise it might not have been recognized as a stage. There were two dressing-rooms, one for men, one for women, on either side. The dressing-room doors were also the stage-entrances, opening from the house, and many a citizen of Gopher Prairie had for his first glimpse of romance the bare shoulders of the leading woman.

There were three sets of scenery: a woodland, a Poor Interior, and a Rich Interior, the last also useful for railway stations, offices, and as a background for the Swedish Quartette from Chicago. There were three gradations of lighting: full on, half on, and entirely off.

This was the only theater in Gopher Prairie. It was known as the "op'ra house." Once, strolling companies had used it for performances of "The Two Orphans," and "Nellie the Beautiful Cloak Model," and "Othello" with specialties between acts, but now the motion-pictures had ousted the gipsy drama.

Carol intended to be furiously modern in constructing the office-set, the drawing-room for Mr. Grimm, and the Humble Home near Kankakee. It was the first time that any one in Gopher Prairie had been so revolutionary as to use enclosed scenes with continuous side-walls. The rooms in the op'ra house sets had separate wing-pieces for sides, which simplified dramaturgy, as the villain could always get out of the hero's way by walking out through the wall.

The inhabitants of the Humble Home were supposed to be amiable and intelligent. Carol planned for them a simple set with warm color. She could see the beginning of the play: all dark save the high settles and the solid wooden table between them, which were to be illuminated by a ray from offstage. The high light was a polished copper pot filled with primroses. Less clearly she sketched the Grimm drawing-room as a series of cool high white arches.

As to how she was to produce these effects she had no notion.

She discovered that, despite the enthusiastic young writers, the drama was not half so native and close to the soil as motor cars and telephones. She discovered that simple arts require sophisticated training. She discovered that to produce one perfect stage-picture would be as difficult as to turn all of Gopher Prairie into a Georgian garden.

She read all she could find regarding staging, she bought paint and light wood; she borrowed furniture and drapes unscrupulously; she made Kennicott turn carpenter. She collided with the problem of lighting. Against the protest of Kennicott and Vida she mortgaged the association by sending to Minneapolis for a baby spotlight, a strip light, a dimming device, and blue and amber bulbs; and with the gloating rapture of a born painter first turned loose among colors, she spent absorbed evenings in grouping, dimming-painting with lights.

Only Kennicott, Guy, and Vida helped her. They speculated as to how flats could be lashed together to form a wall; they hung crocus-yellow curtains at the windows; they blacked the sheet-iron stove; they put on aprons and swept. The rest of the association dropped into the theater every evening, and were literary and superior. They had borrowed Carol's manuals of play-production and had become extremely stagey in vocabulary.

Juanita Haydock, Rita Simons, and Raymie Wutherspoon sat on a sawhorse, watching Carol try to get the right position for a picture on the wall in the first scene.

"I don't want to hand myself anything but I believe I'll give a swell performance in this first act," confided Juanita. "I wish Carol wasn't so bossy though. She doesn't understand clothes. I want to wear, oh, a dandy dress I have — all scarlet — and I said to her, 'When I enter wouldn't it knock their eyes out if I just stood there at the door in this straight scarlet thing?' But she wouldn't let me."

Young Rita agreed, "She's so much taken up with her old details and carpentering and everything that she can't see the picture as a whole. Now I thought it would be lovely if we had an office-scene like the one in 'Little, But Oh My!' Because I SAW that, in Duluth. But she simply wouldn't listen at all."

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As research for Carol's new Gopher Prairie Dramatic Association, she and her husband attend several plays in