[Spring New Series 1 (1992): 28-36]
In light of the re-visioning being done throughout the canon of modern literature, this 1927 play by Cummings--although it was published both in The Dial and by Boni and Liveright, then successfully produced in 1928, and was at the time considered very significant, filled as it was with Freudian insights, a quantity of mirrors and many sexual innuendoes--has some strange inclusions. Despite its title that focuses on the isolated artist figure ("a master of illusion," "a harmless magician," an acrobat), no rarity to American literature, a man separated from his materialistic culture by his childlike sensitivity and appreciation--particularly for elephants, grotesques (the freak show inhabitants of the circus and its appendages), the weird sisters, and a beautiful, idealized woman (Me) who seems to be fixated in mirror narcissism--the play weaves a bitter subtext of male-female relationships. A number of its scenes are take-offs of characteristic vaudeville or burlesque jokes and situations, and most of those are either heavily sexist or racist.
The play is intriguing partly because of this mixture of texts. It is as if Cummings was not sure what direction this work would go, what direction he as writer wanted it to go, and by allowing it to do just that--GO--he opened his art and himself, to a freedom of expression that was unlike some of his earlier writing experiences. For instance, there are passages of great beauty, expressing both deep heterosexual love and an androgynous blending of Him and Me, a spiritual (and also childlike) fusion:
This, the reunion scene, when Him returns to Me after a deep and suicidal separation: [end page 28]
Shortly before this has come the long "Frankie and Johnie" sequence, itself a culmination of a long--and easily followed--vaudeville and minstrel show section that, for all its seeming attention on politics, violence--and murder (by jealous lovers of their competitors),--and racial matters is really grounded in heterosexual relationships, disappointing ones. In fact the way Cummings presents the Frankie and Johnie scenario is downright sinister. The scenario opens with two characters, black figures on a nearly black stage, referred to only as "Male" and "Female," and the female--carrying an infant--names herself as Ground, "de ripe rich deep sweet sleek an sleepy ground, de G-R-O-U-N-D GROUND." As the dialogue continues, it becomes clear that the infant she carries is not a child but is the body of Johnie: the male lover, dead, has become the surrogate child of the woman who has either murdered him, or been otherwise responsible for his death. In the case of Frankie and Johnie, Frankie has killed him for his infidelity (the song itself is sung on stage, in all its verses but before that song, one of Cummings' own is performed--a lament for Johnie which begins "Look at Johnie / was a man / loved a woman / like a man only can," and the fourth verse, "Now he lies / without a sound / lonely an small in de arms of de ground"). Death becomes the price of heterosexual love (for the "blame" in this song is never on Johnie and his unfaithful behavior but rather on his love for Frankie).
After the performance of the Frankie and Johnie ballad, eleven stanzas each with some variant of the expected refrain, "He was a man / and he done her wrong," Cummings adds the last stanza in that seems to be broad vaudeville comedy:
(A cadaverous PERSONAGE with tortoiseshell spectacles spouts
[end page 30]
up out of the third row of the audience): Stop!...
MALE: Who you.
PERSONAGE (Displays enormous badge): John Rutter, President pro team of the Society for the Contraception of Vice....You were about to utter enunciate pronounce and otherwise emit a filthy lewd indecent vile obscene lascivious disgusting word!
Building on the structure of family romance, the birth of child as culmination of sexual love is an expected conclusion-- but this scene comes not at the end of Him but two scenes from that conclusion. The next sections are, again, ribald replays of much of the vaudeville / burlesque text that actually comprises more of the play than do the scenes of romance between Him and Me. And what Cummings does in the penultimate scene, as he creates a hunchbacked sideshow barker whose dialect is said to deliver the "in-con-tro-voiturl troot" but which jars insistently, and intentionally, on the fragile ear, makes this play a much more personal writing than most critics supposed. For in the semicircle of grotesques featured in Scene VI are the Nine Foot Giant, Queen of Serpents, Human Needle, Missing Link, Tattooed Man, Six Hundred Pounds of Passionate Pulchritude, King of Borneo and Eighteen Inch Lady. His portraits of both the diminutive beauty and the Queen of Serpents relate this moving if disguised and shadowy text to Cummings' immediate circumstances.
While the beautiful Elaine Orr Thayer was married to Cummings' friend Scofield Thayer, she bore Cummings' child, a daughter named Nancy (Dec. 20, 1919). After her divorce from Thayer in 1921, Elaine and Cummings married (March 19, 1924), but did not live in the same household. On April 24, 1924, Nancy Thayer became Cummings' adoptive child. A few weeks later, after the unexpected death of Elaine's sister Constance, Elaine took Nancy (by then five years old) and went abroad, to help settle her sister's estate. On the shipboard crossing to England, two months after her wedding to Cummings, she met Frank MacDermot, a senior partner in the American branch of Huth and Co., a British firm of merchant bankers, who had lived in the U.S. for the last 3 or 4 years, though an Irish born, Oxford educated classicist. Elaine wrote Cummings in June that she wanted a divorce so she could marry MacDermot (which she did). As Richard Kennedy tells the story in Dreams in the Mirror, the next six months were tormented ones [end page 33] for Cummings: he wanted to lose neither Elaine nor Nancy, and the unexpectedness of Elaine's new love made him question his own sexuality. He carried a 38-caliber pistol and cartridges, made lists of reasons for and against suicide, and on at least one occasion "came to 3 Washington Square and in Elaine's presence drew out the pistol and pointed it at his temple...then proceeded to unload the cartridges onto the carpet" (259). Once he gave Elaine the French divorce in the fall, the later wrangles over his seeing the daughter who so resembled him continued for many years--debilitating, and usually futile.
Cummings' play includes all this history, in one form or another, even to intimate details that might not have been identified as autobiographical. Him draws a gun early in the play; he views the pregnant Me with terror; he uses the elephant as his totem (when he first met Elaine, just before she and Thayer were to marry, he sent her a drawing of an elephant as a wedding gift); she echoes the childlike quality in Him, having as her totems hunchbacks, innocent observations, naif expectations, etc.
More particularly, in this next-to-last scene of Cummings' 1926 play, the Queen of Serpents section gives the reader, by name, Capn Frank Mac Dermot D.S.C., who captures the great serpent while it is fast asleep. The serpent is truly a super-beast, "mohs poisunous uv all snakes...duh only livin boaconstrictur in captivity lengt toitynine feet sevun un nine toitysecunds inches swollud five indigenes ten cartridgebelts six Winchestur rifles forty-two rounds uv amyounition un uh Stetson hat ut one gulp," and Mac Dermot handles it "like youse boys would hanul yur bes goil." Because Mac Dermot has transportation at his command, the snake is shipped in "12 freightcars fur twentyone days tuh duh mowt uv duh Amazon rivur nevur woked up til fiftyfour hours out tuh sea wen duh en-tire crew incloodin duh capn took toins settin un duh heavily-padlock covur uv duh fortyfive foot bamboo box boun wid steel hoops in wich duh monstur wus tempurrurrilly imprisoned in spite uv wich precaution he trashed about so much duh S.O.L. passengurs wus all seasick till duh ship reached Hamburg were sevun uv um died." (135-6). This paean to MacDermot's bravery--though the sleeping snake (perhaps Cummings himself) hardly could have [end page 34] been the threat the precautions suggest--comes immediately after what seems to be Cummings' long description of Elaine, "duh eighteen inch Parisiun doll," "Madame Suzette Yvonne Hortense Jacqueline Heloise Petite," "uh poificly form pocket edition uv sheek femininity born under duh shadow uv duh Eyfl Towur in Paris where she buys all her close spiks floounly nineteen languages excloosive uv her native tongue is toityone years old... was in fac sevun times married tuh various internationally famous specimuns uv duh uppercrust uv duh pigmy woild." She has led an internationally adventurous life, has "divorced ur outlived all her husbans" and has now written "duh only autentic story uv her life wich undur duh significunt title, Minyuhchoors uv Ro-mance ur Many Abelards has already sold out four editions uv one hundud tousund copies each un is ut presun in duh process uv bein tran-slated intuh twenty languages incloodin Arabic un Eskimo Madame Petite will be glad tuh answur any un all questions un give advice tuh duh best uv her ability un all un any subjecs tuh whoever cares tuh unboidun her ur his troubles male un female step right up" [italics mine] (133-5). Previously, Madame Petite had been shown offering photographs of herself to whomever wanted solace; she continues this, along with copies of her book, as this vignette ends.
Drawing together the painful pieces of Cummings' theater montage the viewer now sees why the chief business of Him's stage setting had been the movement with the fourth wall of the set. By the time of the last scene, another reunion scene between Him and Me, the fourth wall has not only changed position; it has been re-defined. This time Him no longer controls the narrative; this time it is Me who announces to Him that the fourth wall is invisible, and serves as the panel through which the thc.1t-r audience watches the play, a realistic description of the setting. When Him says, "I wish I could believe this" and Me announces that he can't, because it is, in fact, the truth of the situation, the assumption is that Him has a reality principle problem, that he does see the truth that he searches for so abstractedly--and so whimsically.
What the audience views as the separation of the lovers at the end of the play is presented calmly, matter-of-factly, without [end page 35] cant or hysteria. The setting is described as being exactly as it was at the beginning of the play, except that Him's old hat is no longer on the sofa: the love affair between Him and Me has ended. And as further sign that the six-year love affair between Cummings and Elaine Thayer had ended, Cummings dedicates the play to Anne Barton, whom he had met in 1925. In 1929, Anne was to become Cummings' second wife. She too was beautiful, vivacious, divorced, and the mother of a daughter, Diana, who was very near in age to Cummings' Nancy. But as Cummings had written his mother soon after his second marriage, no longer hiding the ambivalence about relationships, parenthood, and responsibility that marks all his writing, "What a shock not to be a bachelor" (Kennedy 305). For women who were attracted to Cummings, like Elaine, like Anne, like Me, his vaunted childlike sensitivity and fragility became a weight that dragged joy out of both love and self; so that finally, leaving Him became the sane choice. The greatness of Cummings' Him is that it expresses so well that complex personal situation.
Notes for E. E. Cummings' Him
Contents 1 page
Spring home page