(Brookline, MA. Winter 1939. A scruffy little apartment, with assorted papers & manuscripts strewn about and one small manual typewriter on a desk. Enter Barbara Follett. She is only 25, but looks haggard and much older.)
(looking at her typewriter)
What is art, if it is not to write?
My oft acclaimed “brilliance” and the fame
The authors and the critics heaped on me —
The triumphs that they told me I would have —
Where are those things, and where the compliments
For all the glorious works I’m mean to write?
They’re gone — gone — for a look: I cannot write!
My poor, pathetic life has hit a block
And all is lost. And this malign device
In every way proclaims my impotence:
It mocks me, and it shows what I can’t do.
I sit within a squalid, filthy office,
Take dictation, then I type it out.
This thing was once my angel, now my curse.
(enter Young Barbara)
I loved to write, you now I loved to write.
I loved the keyboard, love the carriage bell,
Loved to place reflections on the page
And freeze forever my ebullient prose
And show my love of nature on each page.
How can you hate this blessed machine, when
It meant everything to me — and you?
Those days are gone! They can’t return!
They can, they can, as sure as I am here.
So you’re a prisoner in your dreary office —
Life’s not all that you could wish. So what?!
Your spirit still is here: I am the girl
That you once were. Though all your dreams have drowned
In pragmatism’s overwhelming sea,
Still I, your spirit, have survived, and so
Can fill your soul with everything you need.
That’s fine, that’s easy to proclaim
But what about my father, what of him?
(pointing to Young Barbara)
I was but twelve years old when I did write
The House without its Windows, and he helped.
And so adoring was that man, so filled with love
With my first novel that, as master of his craft,
He helped suffuse my work with towering prose
And took my reveries and made them whole.
I should have noticed, even then, that his
Devotion was more vanity than love,
More love of self than love of me; and yet
He proclaimed to all the world — at least to all
His literary friends — that I’m a genius
And my book a youthful masterwork
To be revered: my fame fore’er assured.
Adoring critics called me “progidy.”
A prodigy dependent on a man
So wrapped within himself that soon enough
He found another woman and decamped.
I pled that he return to mother and me,
I begged my father think again of all
The pleasures we had had: the trips into
The mountains of the north, where flowers bloomed
And birds cried out in ways that only we
Could hear. I begged him think again of our
Collaboration, dreaming of a new
Prodigious novel we could write — but all in vain.
His help was great — no doubt — but all the art
Was mine. I wrote the book — he helped — but all
The inspiration flowed from me, not him, and my
Sweet words inspired everyone. You must
Not think that he and he alone gave life
To what I wrote: I still can write — it’s in my soul —
And as I grew, I dreamt of lovers, strong
And bold, and learned too, whom I’d embrace.
And such a man appeared upon the Vigilant,
The sturdy ship we sailed across the Sea.
He was a sailor but he understood my words
And wrote me oft and most prolifically
Unto the point I thought that he was mine.
Our lovely correspondence lasted years;
And even though he seldom was ashore
And though I saw him less and less,
My sailorman did still inspire me
And gave me hope that one day we’d be wed.
But no! My sailor sailed unto the North,
And less and less appeared within my thoughts —
And even less my arms — so yet again
I was abandoned by a man I loved.
Darkest sorrow tore apart my soul,
And desperately I sought another who
Could staunch the pain and fill the gap
Which twice revealed the faithlessness of men.
And yet I’m cute, they’ve always said I’m cute,
And young, desirable, and filled with traits
That daddy said could capture any man
Or so I thought. Another man appeared:
A worldly wanderer, with feet upon the ground
But dreams within his heart: the dreams we shared.
We took ourselves to Spain, together slept
As man and wife, defying all convention.
He seemed the perfect mate: romantic yet
Well organized, and balancing my dreams
With solid, clear Cartesian thought:
He’d help promote my work as ne’er before.
We wed — and reservations we had none.
He was the husband of my fondest dreams!
We moved to Boston, and I tried to write —
But then the Great Depression drained our lives
And that “dear” husband, though I’d see him more,
Consigned himself to business and was scarce
A presence in my life. I saw him less and less
As business trips filled up his days and want
Of money occupied our shallow talk.
I took a job; my writing died, except
The swill my bosses made me write.
I still retained a poet’s inspiration and
A dozen friends on whom I could rely.
But hubby wasn’t there, nor were my dreams,
And all that others saw in me went blank.
And as my failing marriage seized my thoughts
And I replaced the fancies of my works
And strained to be the wife that he could love,
He drifted ever further off from me
Until my world became a squalid hell
Of jealously and misery and rage.
And though I tried and tried to be the one
That he’d adore or simply understand,
My efforts drove him off until, on day,
He found, or thought he’d found, another girl
Who gave to him what I most feared: the love
He could not find in me.
I always was
Beloved of the men around: this other dame
Perhaps exists in your imaginings
She lives — or e’en if not, he’s using her
As prologue for the day he’ll quit my life.
For whether she’s alive or just made-up,
He’s wounded me with her, and I can ne’er
Escape my jealous, wounded dreams.
I always dreamt that one day there’d be kids,
And then my natural life would be complete.
There were no children, none we even thought
That we could have. I had my stupid job,
Commercial ventures occupied his days:
We’d lack of time and lack of money too.
But surely you could make the time and give
Your children all the love your parents gave
I should have done, I should have
Tried to give to them the love of nature
That so often filled my soul. I should have done,
But chose to live within these narrow walls
And tried to satisfy my faithless spouse
With dreary office work that I detest.
But even in office work, you could have found
A thousand subjects, filled with joy and sorrow,
Waiting for your art to speak their truth
And so reveal their longings to the world.
I should have done: I should have found their world
An inspiration to my art: a gift
Of writing that might comfort them.
But taken out of Nature I grew mute,
I couldn’t find the words to tell their tale;
Their sorry world inspired me not at all.
I couldn’t write, I’d lost the gift of words.
And so my grim reality is this:
I have no future, have no family tree,
And I’ve got nothing in return. I’ll failed
In everything I’ll do, so all is lost!
But still there is a wondrous world out there,
The world of nature you’ve so well described,
The world that did inspire you when you were young
And which you wrote about again and again:
The world your dad explored with you, and yes,
Your husband too. The hills of Maine whereon
Your greatest novel had its end, and where
Your heroine did fuse her life with nature
And was blessed by butterflies who made her Queen.
No sordid business there, no faithless men,
But only flowers, trees, and living creatures
All in love with you in perfect peace.
Yes, yes, ’tis there that I should be, ’tis there
I’ll live without the fogged-up windows of
This gross polluted world. ’Tis there I’ll go —
Redeemed from every hurt and every injury
This wretched life can hurl at me.
But it is bitter cold and look: the snow
Completely masks the earth: there’s danger there!
’Tis there I’ll go, and lie upon a bed
So soft and pure, so free of mankind’s rage,
That Nature’ll tuck me in. And I will wed
The plants that I have known and all
The animals that I have loved — without
The ghastly humans who did crush my soul
And took from me the only boons I ever sought:
A family life within a loving home
And novel writings I will never write
My future lies within that sacred snow.
(Exit Barbara. The lights dim, and Young Barbara looks in the direction in which Barbara has exited and says, very softly:)
And at my novel’s end I wrote prophetically: “She would be invisible forever to all mortals, save those few who have minds to believe, eyes to see.”
Editor’s Note: The dramatization is based on the life of Barbara Newhall Follett, born in 1914, who grew up in New Hampshire and wrote critically acclaimed novels at ages 12 and 14. Depressed by her marriage, she left a Brookline, Massachusetts, apartment in December, 1939, and was never seen again.
Cheiten, a Princeton-based writer and playwright, has had his works produced by Off-Broadstreet Theater in Hopewell and Princeton Summer Theater, among others.