The James Purdy Society
Synopses of James Purdy's Works,
with Performance Notes
Will, a young businessman, is separated from his wife and is hoping against hope that it is only a temporary estrangement. She has turned their old home into a rooming house where people of every kind can stay. His son Brice, an exceptional boy, goes back and forth between the two houses. Will is driven wild when, after practically interrogating his 15 year old son, he finds that not only is she seeing other men. but she is probably sleeping with them as well.
This news drives him to the house of his mother in law to see if she can speak once more with her daughter. She has always liked Will and he has always felt renewed and able to contend with anything after being in her presence. Just watching her sew does more for him than she could ever realize. Though her daughter’s heart seems to be hardened against Will, Melissa sees their son, Brice, as having the same insatiable quest for freedom that her daughter has always had and she promises to try once more, for Brice’s well being as well as Will’s, to reason with her daughter. She doesn’t however see much prospect.
Will is disconsolate and is becoming more lost, almost dazed. He runs into someone who has known him since his schooldays. Derek has become a drunkard and is in his cups. He knows Will has always looked down his nose at him and he has secretly always wanted Della. He takes advantage of Will’s state as he craftily gets his revenge finally digging in at Will for being too perfect an icicle to satisfy his own wife. Will with one punch knocks him down and though he picks Derek up, he feels he shouldn’t have stopped with that single blow. He should have gone on to kill him.
Brice’s best friend is Edgars, a boy who comes from a poor family of questionable reputation but whose parents have remained together. He tells Brice of the wild horses that have escaped from the Star-lite stables when it burned down and are now running wild in the surrounding woods and pastureland. Brice can’t wait to see them.
Brice goes to his mother’s house and finds her dancing and partying with two tough men of low class character. He has come to talk with her and flies into a rage threatening them with a chair. They depart but not without telling Della that she has behaved like a tease. As Brice argues with his mother over her leaving his father, a decent man, he learns that she felt like she had been living in a plot in the cemetery. She felt she was in bondage to him. There was no happiness, no fun, no dancing. Moreover, from the start, he tried to take Brice away from her. He was incapable of love of tenderness of letting go. It was all duty, dignity, respectability, level masculine rightness, and she had been suffocating. It has turned her into a starving woman.
Upset by this meeting with Brice, Della decides to visit her mother crossing the pastureland at night she is almost killed by the wild horses. As she tries on one of the dresses Melissa has been making for a customer she tells Melissa that there was no happiness in her marriage that she had been married to a vision of a man, that Will had receded so far from her that his touch froze her. That she could have put up with his business failures but she could not live with anyone who remained so distant from her.
Melissa goes to Will with the bad news. that Della will not even consider taking him back. Shortly afterwards Will has come to a near collapse. His son who has now started chewing tobacco tries to console him and get him to stop crying. Will tells his son that tears are more manly than tobacco juice any day. Brice lets him know old man Simeon is on his way over from the sheriff’s office. They ask Brice to leave the room and Will is served with the divorce papers suing him for gross negligence and non support. Simeon prevails on Will to have some rye to cut the pain and as he leaves he gives Will the whole bottle as a present.
Will and Melissa decide not to contest the divorce. What her daughter wants is to fight him in the courts. This would be too hard on the boy. They burn the divorce papers instead.
Lila, who also went to school with Will and Della, has been watching Will’s deterioration and has heard of the serving of the divorce papers. She is unable to sleep and has been worrying about how Will is dealing with this new situation. Without realizing what time it is, she decides to pay him a visit. She is shocked to see he has been drinking. Out of his despair and loneliness and the accusations of coldness leveled against him he forces himself on Lila. She claws at his face and threatens him with the bottle.
The whole town has heard the news and the scars on Will’s face bear testimony. Lila goes to Melissa she is however more concerned with Will and Della than with the shock that has been perpetrated on her. She had on another occasion gone to Melissa for both advice and financial support, when once before she had gotten into trouble with a man. Melissa and Lila are still uncertain of their decision to terminate Lila’s pregnancy and not a day goes by that Lila doesn’t think of her lost child. Melissa is heartsick over this new crisis and is unsure whether any decision she has ever made has been the right one. Della interrupts them and accuses Lila of bringing it all on, of wanting Will from the beginning and of deliberately visiting Will at a late hour when she knew his condition. She has always seen through her music teacher facade and knows of her abortion in New York. She feels Melissa’s loyalty is more with Will and Lila than with her own daughter.
Since the sexual assault Brice has been hanging out up north where the hoboes keep camp. The wild horses were up there. Edgars senses Brice is fixing to run off. He promises Brice he will never let on about the hoboes.
Brice feels he has a right to know what happened between his father and Lila, since the whole town is talking about it. William explains the episode. He tells Brice that Lila wanted him and then when she felt the force of his feeling for her she got scared. She was afraid of letting someone care for her, afraid of letting someone give himself to her. All he did was kiss her with too much feeling. And now he can’t contest the divorce even if he wishes.
Della has come for a showdown. She starts in on Brice then wheels on William. Brice takes his leave and though they detect something more is going on in his good-bye they ignore its deeper meaning. She and Will have it out with each other with Will managing to get out all the anger, and all the accusations he has held against her during their entire marriage. She feels if he had talked like this from the beginning they might have been able to stay together. But she holds the final card and she vows to take Brice away from him, if it’s her last act.
But no one is going to take Brice away from anybody. He is gone. Simeon arrives from the sheriff’s office to see if the note he has left behind. contains any clues to his whereabouts. Melissa and Della arrive also. As Melissa prepares to read the message aloud she realizes the opened envelope had been addressed to her. It is connected with things he has sensed through the wild horses: running and being free, having no name and forgetting. He will choke to death if he stays here. He doesn’t even mention Will or Della.
Simeon wants to take the note back to the Sheriff’s office though Melissa doesn’t want to part with it even for a moment. It has become too precious to her. She feels and rightly so that she will never see her grandson again. Della is now very sensitive and considerate to Will and his very unstable condition. After they have left Will asks Simeon if he has ever gotten over losing his only son in the war. “The saying that time heals all wounds is a bit wide of the mark,” is his reply.
Simeon brings the letter back to Melissa. Her friend and assistant, Harriet, is there also. She vows to never let the letter be taken out of her possession again. Melissa knows now she will never see her grandson again. The three older friends decide to have some elderberry wine on the occasion of their being together. Melissa tells them of a strange day dream she has always had about her grandson. In it Brice says, “We have always been alone together, Grandma, haven’t we. And now we can be alone together always and always.” Simeon feels there is still some hope that they can find the boy. Melissa knows a boy like Brice will not allow himself to be found. Simeon reminds her that even if she never sees her grandson again there is always more good they can do in the world.
After Simeon departs Melissa doesn’t know where she should put such a letter. She decides to always keep it against her breast. She suddenly has a strange feeling that Brice has found his chance, that he’s free at last. As her face brightens for a moment Harriet tells her of Sadie Peterson’s gown which they have not finished. Melissa decides to carry on and not shed useless tears. They will work on the gown all day and evening or Sadie will beat the door down to know why it’s not done. Harriet picks up the gown and approaches Melissa as they smile at one another.
Setting: A town in Ohio in the 1930’s it moves in and out of its great but rundown Victorian houses, the town itself and the surrounding farm and woodlands.
Characters: Great vehicle part for actor in his mid to late 30’s with three excellent female roles, adolescents and townspeople.
This play is very easily adapted to the screen. It would make an action packed and riveting film of domestic drama. The many locations involved in the play would make it very easy to open up for cinema.
This would be a very entertaining period film focusing on the unraveling of a small town businessman. Though it is period and set in small town America it has within it characters everyone can easily recognize and identify with. It is the war between the sexes. Subtly interwoven in the plot line are the very propitious subjects of: the effect of divorce upon the child, women’s subjugation, rape, abortion, and old age.