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Eugene O’Neill (1888–1953). Three Plays. 1922.

Act II III. The First Man

Curtis’ study—morning of the following day


On the left, forward, a gun rack in which are displayed several varieties of rifles and shotguns. Farther back, three windows looking out on the garden. In the rear wall, an open fireplace with two leather arm-chairs in front of it. To right of fireplace, a door leading into the living-room. In the far right corner, another chair. In the right wall, three windows looking out on the lawn and garden. On this side, front, a typewriting table with machine and chair. Opposite the windows on the right, a bulky leather couch, facing front. In front of the windows on the left, a long table with stacks of paper piled here and there on it, reference books, etc. On the left of table, a swivel chair. Gray oak bookcases are built into the cream rough plaster walls which are otherwise almost hidden from view by a collection of all sorts of hunter’s trophies, animal heads of all kinds. The floor is covered with animal skins—tiger, polar bear, leopard, lion, etc. Skins are also thrown over the backs of the chairs. The sections of the bookcase not occupied by scientific volumes have been turned into a specimen case for all sorts of zoological, geological, anthropological oddities.

It is mid-morning, sunny and bright, of the following day.

CURTIS and BIGELOW are discovered. CURTIS is half-sitting on the corner of the table, left, smoking a pipe. BIGELOW is lying sprawled on the couch. Through the open windows on the right come the shouts of children playing. MARTHA’S voice joins in with theirs.

BIGELOW—Listen to that rumpus, will you! The kids are having the time of their lives. [He goes to the window and looks out—delightedly.] Your wife is playing hide and seek with them. Come and look.

CURTIS—[With a trace of annoyance.] Oh, I can see well enough from here.

BIGELOW—[With a laugh.] She seems to get as much fun out of it as they do. [As a shriek comes from outside—excitedly.] Ah, Eddy discovered her behind the tree. Isn’t he tickled now! [He turns back from the window and lights a cigarette—enthusiastically.] Jove, what a hand she is with children!

CURTIS—[As if the subject bored him.] Oh, Martha gets along well with anyone.

BIGELOW—[Sits on the couch again—with a sceptical smile.] You think so? With everyone?

CURTIS—[Surprised.] Yes—with everyone we’ve ever come in contact with—even aboriginal natives.

BIGELOW—With the aboriginal natives of Bridge-town? With the well-known Jayson family, for example?

CURTIS—[Getting to his feet—frowning.] Why, everything’s all right between Martha and them, isn’t it? What do you mean, Big? I certainly imagined—but I’ll confess this damn book has had me so preoccupied——

BIGELOW—Too darn preoccupied, if you’ll pardon my saying so. It’s not fair to leave her to fight it alone.

CURTIS—[Impatiently.] Fight what? Martha has a sense of humor. I’m sure their petty prejudices merely amuse her.

BIGELOW—[Sententiously.] A mosquito is a ridiculous, amusing creature, seen under a microscope; but when a swarm has been stinging you all night——

CURTIS—[A broad grin coming over his face.] You speak from experience, eh?

BIGELOW—[Smiling.] You bet I do. Touch me anywhere and you’ll find a bite. This, my native town, did me the honor of devoting its entire leisure attention for years to stinging me to death.

CURTIS—Well, if I am to believe one-tenth of the family letters I used to receive on the subject of my old friend, Bigelow, they sure had just cause.

BIGELOW—Oh, I’ll play fair. I’ll admit they did—then. But it’s exasperating to know they never give you credit for changing—I almost said, reforming. One ought to be above the gossip of a town like this—but say what you like, it does get under your skin.

CURTIS—[With an indulgent smile.] So you’d like to be known as a reformed character, eh?

BIGELOW—[Rather ruefully.] Et tu! Your tone is sceptical. But I swear to you, Curt, I’m an absolutely new man since my wife’s death, since I’ve grown to love the children. Before that I hardly knew them. They were hers, not mine, it seemed. [His face lighting up.] Now we’re the best of pals, and I’ve commenced to appreciate life from a different angle. I’ve found a career at last—the children—the finest career a man could have, I believe.

CURTIS—[Indifferently.] Yes, I suppose so—if you’re made that way.

BIGELOW—Meaning you’re not?

CURTIS—Not any more. [Frowning.] I tried that once.

BIGELOW—[After a pause—with a smile.] But we’re wandering from the subject of Martha versus the mosquitoes.

CURTIS—[With a short laugh.] Oh, to the deuce with that! Trust Martha to take care of herself. Besides, I’ll have her out of this stagnant hole before so very long—six months, to be exact.

BIGELOW—Where do you think of settling her then?

CURTIS—No settling about it. I’m going to take her with me.

BIGELOW—[Surprised.] On the Asian expedition?

CURTIS—Yes. I haven’t told her yet but I’m going to to-day. It’s her birthday—and I’ve been saving the news to surprise her with.

BIGELOW—Her birthday? I wish the children and I had known—but it’s not too late yet.

CURTIS—[With a grin.] Thirty-nine candles, if you’re thinking of baking a cake!

BIGELOW—[Meaningly.] That’s not old—but it’s not young either, Curt.

CURTIS—[Disgustedly.] You talk like an old woman, Big. What have years to do with it? Martha is young in spirit and always will be. [There is a knock at the door and MARTHA’S voice calling: “May I come in, people?”] Sure thing! [BIGELOW jumps to open the door and MARTHA enters. She is flushed, excited, full of the joy of life, panting from her exertions.]

MARTHA—[Laughing.] I’ve had to run away and leave them with the governess. They’re too active for me. [She throws herself on the couch.] Phew! I’m all tired out. I must be getting old.

CURTIS—[With a grin.] Big was just this minute remarking that, Martha. [BIGELOW looks embarrassed.]

MARTHA—[Laughing at him.] Well, I declare! Of all the horrid things to hear——

BIGELOW—[Still embarrassed but forcing a joking tone.] He—prevaricates, Mrs. Jayson.

MARTHA—There now, Curt! I’m sure it was you who said it. It sounds just like one of your horrid facts.

BIGELOW—And how can I offer my felicitations now? But I do, despite your husband’s calumny. May your shadow never grow less!

MARTHA—Thank you. [She shakes his proffered hand heartily.]

BIGELOW—And now I’ll collect my flock and go home.

CURTIS—So long, Big. Be sure you don’t mislay one of your heirs!

BIGELOW—No fear—but they might mislay me. [He goes. CURT sits down on couch. MARTHA goes to the window right, and looks out—after a pause, waving her hand.]

MARTHA—There they go. What darlings they are! [CURTIS grunts perfunctorily. MARTHA comes back and sits beside CURT on the couch—with a sigh.] Whoever did say it was right, Curt. I am getting old.

CURTIS—[Taking one of her hands and patting it.] Nonsense!

MARTHA—[Shaking her head and smiling with a touch of sadness.] No. I feel it.

CURTIS—[Puts his arms around her protectingly.] Nonsense! You’re not the sort that ever grows old.

MARTHA—[Nestling up to him.] I’m afraid we’re all that sort, dear. Even you. [She touches the white hair about his temples playfully.] Circumstantial evidence. I’ll have to dye it when you’re asleep some time—and then nobody’ll know.

CURTIS—[Looking at her.] You haven’t any silver threads. [Jokingly.] Am I to suspect——?

MARTHA—No, I don’t. Honest, cross my heart, I wouldn’t even conceal that from you, if I did. But gray hairs prove nothing. I am actually older than you, don’t forget.

CURTIS—One whole year! That’s frightful, isn’t it?

MARTHA—I’m a woman, remember; so that one means at least six. Ugh! Let’s not talk about it. Do you know, it really fills me with a queer panic sometimes?

CURTIS—[Squeezing her.] Silly girl!

MARTHA—[Snuggling close to him.] Will you always love me—even when I’m old and ugly and feeble and you’re still young and strong and handsome?

CURTIS—[Kisses her—tenderly.] Martha! What a foolish question, sweetheart. If we ever have to grow old, we’ll do it together just as we’ve always done everything.

MARTHA—[With a happy sigh.] That’s my dream of happiness, Curt. [Enthusiastically.] Oh, it has been a wonderful, strange life we’ve lived together, Curt, hasn’t it? You’re sure you’ve never regretted—never had the weest doubt that it might have been better with—someone else?

CURTIS—[Kisses her again—tenderly reproachful.] Martha!

MARTHA—And I have helped—really helped you, haven’t I?

CURTIS—[Much moved.] You’ve been the best wife a man could ever wish for, Martha. You’ve been—you are wonderful. I owe everything to you—your sympathy and encouragement. Don’t you know I realize that? [She kisses him gratefully.]

MARTHA—[Musing happily.] Yes, it’s been a wonderful, glorious life. I’d live it over again if I could, every single second of it—even the terrible suffering—the children.

CURTIS—[Wincing.] Don’t. I wouldn’t want that over again. [Then changing the subject abruptly.] But why have you been putting all our life into the past tense? It seems to me the most interesting part is still ahead of us.

MARTHA—[Softly.] I mean—together—Curt.


MARTHA—But you’re going away—and I can’t go with you this time.

CURTIS—[Smiling to himself over her head.] Yes, that does complicate matters, doesn’t it?

MARTHA—[Hurt—looking up at him.] Curt! How indifferently you say that—as if you didn’t care!

CURTIS—[Avoiding her eyes—teasingly.] What do you think you’ll do all the time I’m gone?

MARTHA—Oh, I’ll be lost—dead—I won’t know what to do. I’ll die of loneliness—[yearning creeping into her voice] unless——

CURTIS—[Inquisitively.] Unless what?

MARTHA—[Burying her face on his shoulder—passionately.] Oh, Curt, I love you so! Swear that you’ll always love me no matter what I do—no matter what I ask——

CURTIS—[Vaguely uneasy now, trying to peer into her face.] But, sweetheart——

MARTHA—[Giving way weakly to her feelings for a moment—entreatingly.] Then don’t go!

CURTIS—[Astonished.] Why, I’ve got to go. You know that.

MARTHA—Yes, I suppose you have. [Vigorously, as if flinging off a weakness.] Of course you have!

CURTIS—But, Martha—you said you’d be lonely unless—unless what?

Martha—Unless I— [She hesitates, blushing and confused.] I mean we—oh, I’m so afraid of what you’ll—hold me close, very close to you and I’ll whisper it. [She pulls his head down and whispers in his ear. A look of disappointment and aversion forces itself on his face.]

CURTIS—[Almost indignantly.] But that’s impossible, Martha!

MARTHA—[Pleadingly.] Now don’t be angry with me, Curt—not till you’ve heard everything. [With a trace of defiance.] It isn’t impossible, Curt. It’s so! It’s happened! I was saving it as a secret—to tell you to-day—on my birthday.

CURTIS—[Stunned.] You mean it—is a fact?

MARTHA—Yes. [Then pitifully.] Oh, Curt, don’t look that way! You seem so cold—so far away from me. [Straining her arms about him.] Why don’t you hold me close to you? Why don’t you say you’re glad—for my sake?

CURTIS—[Agitatedly.] But Martha—you don’t understand. How can I pretend gladness when— [Vehemently.] Why, it would spoil all our plans!

MARTHA—Plans? Our plans? What do you mean?

CURTIS—[Excitedly.] Why, you’re going with me, of course! I’ve obtained official permission. I’ve been working for it for months. The letter came yesterday morning.

MARTHA—[Stunned.] Permission—to go with you——

CURTIS—[Excitedly.] Yes. I couldn’t conceive going without you. And I knew how you must be wishing——

MARTHA—[In pain.] Oh!

CURTIS—[Distractedly—jumping to his feet and staring at her bewilderedly.] Martha! You don’t mean to tell me you weren’t!

MARTHA—[In a crushed voice.] I was wishing you would finally decide not to go—to stay at home.

CURTIS—[Betraying exasperation.] But you must realize that’s impossible. Martha, are you sure you’ve clearly understood what I’ve told you? You can go with me, do you hear? Everything is arranged. And I’ve had to fight so hard—I was running the risk of losing my own chance by my insistence that I couldn’t go without you.

MARTHA—[Weakly and helplessly.] I understand all that, Curt.

CURTIS—[Indignantly.] And yet—you hesitate! Why, this is the greatest thing of its kind ever attempted! There are unprecedented possibilities! A whole new world of knowledge may be opened up—the very origin of Man himself! And you will be the only woman——

MARTHA—I realize all that, Curt.

CURTIS—You can’t—and hesitate! And then—think, Martha!—it will mean that you and I won’t have to be separated. We can go on living the old, free life together.

MARTHA—[Growing calm now.] You are forgetting—what I told you, Curt. You must face the fact. I cannot go.

CURTIS—[Overwhelmed by the finality of her tone—after a pause.] How long have you known—this?

MARTHA—Two months, about.

CURTIS—But why didn’t you tell me before?

MARTHA—I was afraid you wouldn’t understand—and you haven’t, Curt. But why didn’t you tell me before—what you were planning?

CURTIS—[Eagerly.] You mean—then—you would have been glad to go—before this had happened?

MARTHA—I would have accepted it.

CURTIS—[Despairingly.] Martha, how could you ever have allowed this to happen? Oh, I suppose I’m talking foolishness. It wasn’t your seeking, I know.

MARTHA—Yes it was, Curt. I wished it. I sought it.

CURTIS—[Indignantly.] Martha! [Then in a hurt tone.] You have broken the promise we made when they died. We were to keep their memories inviolate. They were to be always—our only children.

MARTHA—[Gently.] They forgive me, Curt. And you will forgive me, too—when you see him—and love him.


MARTHA—I know it will be a boy.

CURTIS—[Sinking down on the couch beside her—dully.] Martha! You have blown my world to bits.

MARTHA—[Taking one of his hands in hers—gently.] You must make allowances for me, Curt, and forgive me. I am getting old. No, it’s the truth. I’ve reached the turning point. Will you listen to my side of it, Curt, and try to see it—with sympathy—with true understanding— [With a trace of bitterness.]—forgetting your work for the moment?

CURTIS—[Miserably.] That’s unfair, Martha. I think of it as our work—and I have always believed you did, too.

MARTHA—[Quickly.] I did, Curt! I do! All in the past is our work. It’s my greatest pride to think so. But, Curt, I’ll have to confess frankly—during the past two years I’ve felt myself—feeling as if I wasn’t complete—with that alone.

CURTIS—Martha! [Bitterly.] And all the time I believed that more and more it was becoming the aim of your life, too.

MARTHA—[With a sad smile.] I’m glad of that, dear. I tried my best to conceal it from you. It would have been so unfair to let you guess while we were still in harness. But oh, how I kept looking forward to the time when we would come back—and rest—in our own home! You know—you said that was your plan—to stay here and write your books—and I was hoping——

CURTIS—[With a gesture of aversion.] I loathe this book-writing. It isn’t my part, I realize now. But when I made the plans you speak of, how could I know that then?

MARTHA—[Decisively.] You’ve got to go. I won’t try to stop you. I’ll help all in my power—as I’ve always done. Only—I can’t go with you any more. And you must help me—to do my work—by understanding it. [He is silent, frowning, his face agitated, preoccupied. She goes on intensely.] Oh, Curt, I wish I could tell you what I feel, make you feel with me the longing for a child. If you had just the tiniest bit of feminine in you—! [Forcing a smile.] But you’re so utterly masculine, dear! That’s what has made me love you, I suppose—so I’ve no right to complain of it. [Intensely.] I don’t. I wouldn’t have you changed one bit! I love you! And I love the things you love—your work—because it’s a part of you. And that’s what I want you to do—to reciprocate—to love the creator in me—to desire that I, too, should complete myself with the thing nearest my heart!

CURTIS—[Intensely preoccupied with his own struggle—vaguely.] But I thought——

MARTHA—I know; but, after all, your work is yours, not mine. I have been only a helper, a good comrade, too, I hope, but—somehow—outside of it all. Do you remember two years ago when we were camped in Yunnan, among the aboriginal tribes? It was one night there when we were lying out in our sleeping-bags up in the mountains along the Tibetan frontier. I couldn’t sleep. Suddenly I felt oh, so tired—utterly alone—out of harmony with you—with the earth under me. I became horribly despondent—like an outcast who suddenly realizes the whole world is alien. And all the wandering about the world, and all the romance and excitement I’d enjoyed in it, appeared an aimless, futile business, chasing around in a circle in an effort to avoid touching reality. Forgive me, Curt. I meant myself, not you, of course. Oh, it was horrible, I tell you, to feel that way. I tried to laugh at myself, to fight it off, but it stayed and grew worse. It seemed as if I were the only creature alive—who was not alive. And all at once the picture came of a tribeswoman who stood looking at us in a little mountain village as we rode by. She was nursing her child. Her eyes were so curiously sure of herself. She was horribly ugly, poor woman, and yet—as the picture came back to me—I appeared to myself the ugly one while she was beautiful. And I thought of our children who had died—and such a longing for another child came to me that I began sobbing. You were asleep. You didn’t hear. [She pauses—then proceeds slowly.] And when we came back here—to have a home at last, I was so happy because I saw my chance of fulfillment—before it was too late. [In a gentle, pleading voice.] Now can you understand, dear? [She puts her hand on his arm.]

CURTIS—[Starting as if awaking from a sleep.] Understand? No, I can’t understand, Martha.

MARTHA—[In a gasp of unbearable hurt.] Curt! I don’t believe you heard a word I was saying.

CURTIS—[Bursting forth as if releasing all the pent-up struggle that has been gathering within him.] No, I can’t understand. I cannot, cannot! It seems like treachery to me.


CURTIS—I’ve depended on you. This is the crucial point—the biggest thing of my life—and you desert me!

MARTHA—[Resentment gathering in her eyes.] If you had listened to me—if you had even tried to feel——

CURTIS—I feel that you are deliberately ruining my highest hope. How can I go on without you? I’ve been trying to imagine myself alone. I can’t! Even with my work—who can I get to take your place? Oh, Martha, why do you have to bring this new element into our lives at this late day? Haven’t we been sufficient, you and I together? Isn’t that a more difficult, beautiful happiness to achieve than—children? Everyone has children. Don’t I love you as much as any man could love a woman? Isn’t that enough for you? Doesn’t it mean anything to you that I need you so terribly—for myself, for my work—for everything that is best and worthiest in me? Can you expect me to be glad when you propose to introduce a stranger who will steal away your love, your interest—who will separate us and deprive me of you! No, no, I cannot! It’s asking the impossible. I am only human.

MARTHA—If you were human you would think of my life as well as yours.

CURTIS—I do! It is our life I am fighting for, not mine—our life that you want to destroy.

MARTHA—Our life seems to mean your life to you, Curt—and only your life. I have devoted fifteen years to that. Now I must fight for my own.

CURTIS—[Aghast.] You talk as if we were enemies, Martha! [Striding forward and seizing her in his arms.] No, you don’t mean it! I love you so, Martha! You’ve made yourself part of my life, my work—I need you so! I can’t share you with anyone! I won’t! Martha, my own! Say that you won’t, dear? [He kisses her passionately again and again.]

MARTHA—[All her love and tenderness aroused by his kisses and passionate sincerity—weakening.] Curt! Curt! [Pitiably.] It won’t separate us, dear. Can’t you see he will be a link between us—even when we are away from each other—that he will bring us together all the closer?

CURTIS—But I can’t be away from you!

MARTHA—[Miserably.] Oh, Curt, why won’t you look the fact in the face—and learn to accept it with joy? Why can’t you for my sake? I would do that for you.

CURTIS—[Breaking away from her—passionately.] You will not do what I have implored you—for me! And I am looking the fact in the face—the fact that there must be no fact! [Avoiding her eyes—as if defying his own finer feelings.] There are doctors who——

MARTHA—[Shrinking back from him.] Curt! You propose that—to me! [With overwhelming sorrow.] Oh, Curt! When I feel him—his life within me—like a budding of my deepest soul—to flower and continue me—you say what you have just said! [Grief-stricken.] Oh, you never, never, never will understand!

CURTIS—[Shamefacedly.] Martha, I— [Distractedly.] I don’t know what I’m saying! This whole situation is so unbearable! Why, why does it have to happen now?

MARTHA—[Gently.] It must be now—or not at all—at my age, dear. [Then after a pause—staring at him frightenedly—sadly.] You have changed, Curt. I remember it used to be your happiness to sacrifice yourself for me.

CURTIS—I had no work then—no purpose beyond myself. To sacrifice oneself is easy. But when your only meaning becomes as a searcher for knowledge—you cannot sacrifice that, Martha. You must sacrifice everything for that—or lose all sincerity.

MARTHA—I wonder where your work leaves off and you begin. Hasn’t your work become you?

CURTIS—Yes and no. [Helplessly.] You can’t understand, Martha!…

MARTHA—Nor you.

CURTIS—[With a trace of bitter irony.] And you and your work? Aren’t they one and the same?

MARTHA—So you think mine is selfish, too? [After a pause—sadly.] I can’t blame you, Curt. It’s all my fault. I’ve spoiled you by giving up my life so completely to yours. You’ve forgotten I have one. Oh, I don’t mean that I was a martyr. I know that in you alone lay my happiness and fulfillment in those years—after the children died. But we are no longer what we were then. We must, both of us, relearn to love and respect—what we have become.

CURTIS—[Violently.] Nonsense! You talk as if love were an intellectual process— [Taking her into his arms—passionately.] I love you—always and forever! You are me and I am you. What use is all this vivisecting? [He kisses her fiercely. They look into each other’s eyes for a second—then instinctively fall back from one another.]

MARTHA—[In a whisper.] Yes, you love me. But who am I? There is no recognition in your eyes. You don’t know.

CURTIS—[Frightenedly.] Martha! Stop! This is terrible! [They continue to be held by each other’s fearfully questioning eyes.]

[The Curtain Falls]