Saturday, May 14, 2016


I read Edna St.Vincent Millay’s (1892-1950) play Aria da Capo (1919) when I was a freshman in high school.  It was love at first reading since it was very theatrical and I adored the role of Columbine.  It never crossed my mind that this play had any relationship to Millay’s vision of the world after World War One. 

Aria da Capo was written two years after Millay graduated from Vassar College. She and her sister Norma (1894-1986) joined the Provincetown Players as actors during the 1917-18 season. The following season this group moved to a new theatre and named it The Provincetown Playhouse. It was during the 1919-20 season when Millay directed her new play Aria da Capo and her sister played the role of Columbine.

Aria da Capo is a play within a play, thus it has two separate plots. The opening segment is a harlequinade that had its origin in the Italian commedia dell’arte. When the curtain rises Pierrot and Columbine, the lovers, are seated at a long table which is parallel to the footlights. The table is covered with a gaily printed black and white cloth on which is set enough dishes to represent a banquet.  The two characters sit at opposite ends of the table on thin legged chairs with high backs. Pierrot is dressed in his traditional costume except that it is lilac color. Columbine is in her traditional garb except that it is pink. Their conversation covers a range of topics and it is led by Pierrot who is constantly referring to the edgier modernist movements of the day. Cothurnus, the Masque of Tragedy, interrupts their scene since he needs to rehearse his play.
Norma Millay    Harrison Dowd
Rehearsal of Play without sets or costumes
Once the lovers leave the stage, Cothurnus, his name represents the name of the boot worn by actors in ancient Greek tragedies, starts a new play with the two shepherds, Thyrsis and Corydon. The shepherds eventually start their pastoral playlet, but soon get bored and agree to play a new game of their own invention.  They divide the acting area in half with crepe paper ribbons and begin what becomes a game of war over ownership. The play ends after the death of both characters and Cothurnus leaves the stage. Pierrot and Columbine return to the stage and are upset that their set has been rearranged.  They see two dead bodies under their table and want Cothurnus to take the bodies off the stage.  He refuses so Pierrot covers them with the table cloth so the audience cannot see them.  Pierrot and Columbine begin their dialogue repeating the first sentences of the play.

This outline of the action does not begin to reveal the witty language, the sense of disillusionment that the game of war creates and the attitude of quickly forgetting the tragic events. This play embraces many feelings that were prevalent in the aftermath of the World War One. 

This play must be experienced by a reader, or better yet, by an audience member in order to appreciate the play’s nonrealistic style, its blank verse, and its dynamic juxtaposition of speech that creates tragic humor. This latter element results from the fusion of farce and tragedy. The style of this play was a novelty in America when it was first presented since realism was still the dominant genre.

Aria da Capo, the play’s title, is a reworked version of the name of a musical form from the Baroque period—seventeenth to mid-eighteenth century. The da capo aria was performed by singers who were often accompanied by either several instruments or a small orchestra. This type of composition is divided into three sections. The first section presents a complete piece. The second section is in contrast to the first piece in mood, texture and tempo. The third section repeats the first section from the beginning. Millay utilized the structural elements of this musical form for her play and since the da capo aria’s songs were typically in verse, she followed that element of style as well. 
Aria da Capo opened December 5, 1919 as one of three one-act plays produced by the Provincetown Players at their New York City Playhouse. Alexander Woollcott (1887-1943), a fastidious critic for the New York Times, considered this play the “mainstay” of the evening. Woollcott’s December 14 1919 review titled “Second Thoughts on First Nights.” He told his readers: “you should see this bitterly ironic little fantasy by Edna St. Vincent Millay.... This is the most beautiful and most interesting play in English language now to be seen in New York.” Aria da Capo
gained the reputation as one of the United States finest verse plays.

Woollcott’s comments appear to have resonated across the nation and Aria da Capo became an extremely popular one-act play produced regularly by community theatres and colleges through the 1970s.  After its first fifty years, it continued to be sporadically produced throughout the rest of the century. There have been more than 650 stage productions of this play during its first seventy years.

The New York Times on May 20, 1962 announced that Aria da Capo was to be presented as a television program that evening. Nearly twenty years later Larry Alan Smith (1955-    ) set this play to music.  The new opera was premiered in Chicago on June 11, 1980 and it received praise. A review by Tim Page that appeared in the New York Times on February 12, 1986 considers this work an opera even though there are no real arias. Page praised this work and it has gained recognition worldwide and continues to be performed.

Aria da Capo was published as a book in 1920 by Harper & Brothers: New York and London. Since this publication, the play has frequently been published in collections of one-act plays.  Aria da Capo has been translated into numerous languages and distributed worldwide. The script is readily available both on-line and in one-act play collections.

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote several more plays after Aria da Capo, but she is most remembered for her distinguished work as a poet. In 1923 she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Photo from Women Writers of the Provincetown Players. Judith E. Barlow. State University of New York Press. Albany: New York, 2009.

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