Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847-1919) was interned in a mental hospital for the last twenty years of his life. This play deals primarily with those twenty years. I have adhered to historical fact as much as possible, although the chronology has at times been altered for artistic purposes. (The play within the play in act V is, of course, pure invention.) I have also tried to use as many as possible of the actual words of Ralph Blakelock, Cora, their children, Dr. Ashley and Beatrice, as edited from letters and witnesses by Abraham A. Davidson. Suggestions for certain set designs with page numbers refer to reproductions in Mr. Davidson’s book Ralph Albert Blakelock, The Penn State University Press, University Park, Pennsylvania, 1996. Paintings by Blakelock
The artist’s atelier in New York city, 1899. The decor suggests a poor painter’s cramped and cluttered working space. Two easels stand facing each other. Tubes of paint, brushes in a pot, and papers from sketches are visible. A bookshelf left. Ralph and Marian are dressed in paint-spattered smocks. Ralph is bearded and his long hair is neatly tied in the back. He gives an appearance of neatness, despite the paint spatters. Father and daughter are happy. They discuss their art as they paint. Cora enters, pregnant with their ninth child. The three reminisce about the good times, but Cora mentions the unpaid bills and Ralph becomes depressed, forshadowing his coming insanity. To show Cora he is not shirking his responsibility, Ralph says the very painting on his easel is a commission from an art dealer in Manhattan, an enlargement of a smaller oil. The scene ends with worry about money.
Ralph Albert Blakelock ................(artist)
Cora Blakelock...............(artist’s wife)
Ralph Melville...............(artist’s son)
Art Dealer , Playwright, First Lunatic, Second Lunatic, First Art-lover,
Second Art-lover,Various gallery-goers and mental patients.
Act I, scene I
An art dealer’s gallery in Manhattan. 19th-century landscapes, portraits and still lifes hang on the walls or are stacked against the walls. Other art objects suggest opulence. The art dealer whistles ”De Camp Town Races” as he dusts his treasures with a feather-duster. A little bell jingles as the door opens stage left and Ralph enters carrying a large packaged painting, the one commissioned by the art dealer. Ralph shows him the painting. The art dealer is not pleased with it, saying it is not the same as the smaller oil he wanted enlarged. Ralph agrees that it is not the same painting. It is a new one. The art dealer hems and haws and finally offers Ralph half of the agreed price. Indignantly asking if a gentlemanly handshake means nothing to the art dealer, Ralph takes his painting and leaves the gallery in a huff, the little bell jingling again. The art dealer goes back to his dusting, this time singing ”De Camp Town Races.” The bell jingles again as the playwright enters, dressed in blue overalls, making a delivery of items purchased by the dealer at the auction. (He will reappear in Ralph’s dream in act II.) Ralph reenters glumly, waits for the playwright to leave, and accepts the original offer. The offended art dealer offers half again of the already halved price. Ralph takes the bills and leaves the gallery. The bell jingles abnormally long over the darkened set to suggest his approaching madness. Ralph rips the bills to pieces, lets them fall to the ground and exits.
Act I, scene II
Act I, scene III
Empty stage representing a sidewalk outside the former residence of the Blakelocks after their eviction. The family awaits among a cluttered pile of possessions, uncertain what to do next. Ralph is seated on a suitcase in an obviously disturbed state. His long hair and beard are disheveled. He is dressed fantastically like a Rocky Mountain trapper, and has a dagger in his belt. His speech reveals paranoia. Marian, an artist as well (she will also go mad later on in the play), faintly echoes his paranoia. Cora takes command and sends their two sons, Carl and Ralph Melville, to find a boarding house which will take them on credit. While they are away, mother and daughter reminisce and try to console Ralph. The boys return with a push cart, load their belongings, and all exit.
Cora Blakelock with two of their children
Act II, scene I
Seventeen years later. Recreation room in the Middletown Hospital for the Insane. Ralph’s paintings and drawings are pinned here and there on the walls. His hair is now short and he is clean-shaven. A piano is off to the side. Among the props is a coatrack and two ordinary chairs between which a sheet is haphazardly draped like a hammock. (These things will be transformed in Ralph’s dream in the next scene.) Ralph sits on the floor drawing. Doctor Ashley sits on another chair talking with his patient and taking notes in a notepad. Ralph wonders if he is really insane or only different. The doctor notes that his patient now wants to be called Albert, and sees it as more evidence of schizophrenia. Ralph (Albert) Blakelock then explains that he is tired of being called Ralph – his father was named Ralph, his grandfather, and in fact, he is the twelfth in a line to be named Ralph. But he is the first Albert – Albert the First. The doctor and patient discuss their different world views, and Ralph laments that he has not seen his family for years. Doctor Ashley praises Ralph’s legal guardian, the philanthropist Mrs. Beatrice Adams, and reproaches him for calling her ”that fiendish woman.” When Ralph says he thinks the doctor is unkind, the later walks out in a huff. Ralph sits down at the piano and begins to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (also the title of one of his paintings). Lights fade to total black as the music continues into the next scene.
Act II, scene II
Lights fade back on as Moonlight Sonata continues uninterrupted from the previous scene, to the end of the first movement, at which point the playwright begins to speak. Ralph is dreaming of an oak grove where he made camp on his travels in the far west among the tribes. The full moon shines through the branches. Such a scene was the subject of many of his paintings, which the set should evoke with perhaps the use of slide projection. There is a silhouette of an Indian village in the distant background. Elements in the set echo objects in the asylum in identical places on the stage. The coatrack has become a sapling tree. The sheet draped over the chairs has become a hammock swinging between two oak trees in which, unseen, the playwright lies, at first only a voice. Ralph sits cross-legged by the campfire drawing. The two become aware of each other and converse, sharing the same dream. A coyote howls. The playwright brings Ralph up to date in the 90 years since his death. The old man is astonished, and says his insanity is minor compared to that of the modern world. They discuss Native America. Drums and singing come from the distant village as the playwright yawns, says goodnight and goes back to his hammock.
Act II, scene III
Middletown Hospital, same set as II:i. The hammock again has become a sheet draped between two chairs, the sapling tree a coatrack, etc. Ralph sits in the same place on the floor. He takes a lock of hair and cuts it with a makeshift knife. He is making a paintbrush with his hair and a birch twig. Enter First Lunatic and Second Lunatic. The latter tells Ralph that it is against hospital rules for inmates to have a knife. They converse as night falls in the window. Doctor Ashley enters and confiscates the knife. The two lunatics say they want to put on a play and the doctor agrees. The three inmates exit for supper. Doctor Ashley notices the sheet and complains over his careless staff. Enter Beatrice Adams. She requests for Ralph to be released in her custody. The doctor gives his authorization.
Act III, scene I
Cora Blakelock’s cabin in the Catskills of New York. Carl and Ralph Melville discuss the hopeless situation with their father, and their inability to prevent the commercial exploitation of his art. Carl, the elder, complains that paintings Ralph sold for $3 are now worth $3,000. He adds that the family now has only one small oil painting by Ralph. Enter Cora and Marian. The family reminisces and are resigned to the hopelessness of their situation. Cora says that the most her husband ever recieved for a painting was $500. Ralph Melville complains that that very painting was recently sold for $20,000, the highest price ever paid for the work of a living American artist. He is angered that not one penny of that money went to Ralph nor his family. They are suspicious of his new legal guardian, Mrs. Adams. They agree that in their poverty they are unable to care for Ralph, and that he is better off at the hospital. Marian expresses feelings of paranoia, speaking of a ”plot” against the family, against the artist, against Art. The two brothers complain of the wild-goose chases they have been sent off on to see their father. Beatrice prevents the family from seeing him. Ralph Melville is resigned to take legal action, and Marian is going to try and sell her paintings.
Act III, scene II
The art dealer’s gallery, same set as I:ii. The art dealer is singing ”My Bonny lies over the Ocean” as he examines his canvases. The little bell over the door jingles and Marian enters carrying three oil paintings. She tries to sell him the three canvases, reminding him he has already sold one painting by her. He says no. She complains that he changed the signature on her painting that he sold, writing ”Ralph” in front of ”Blakelock” to deceive buyers. He denies it. She starts to leave. Seeing a bargain, he stops her and offers an outrageously little sum of money. She thinks of her mother, supporting the family alone, and reluctantly agrees, begging him not to change her signature, which is clearly visible as ”Marian Blakelock”. He gives her some bills and she leaves the gallery, the little bell jingling longer than normal over the now darkened set, an echo of the end in I:ii. She gives a soliloquy in a delirium, and exits as the bills fall to the floor.
Act III, scene III
Office of the Blakelock Fund, Liberty Street, New York. Beatrice sits alone writing a letter at her desk. She holds it up, scrutinizes it and begins to proof-read. She pauses, rewrites, pauses again, rewrites again. It is a letter to an art dealer in Boston who bought paintings from Ralph at the hospital without her authorization. She answers the phone and cheerily accepts a donation to the Blakelock Fund. Enter Carl. She asks if he wishes to make a contribution. He says not exactly and introduces himself as Ralph’s son. She is stunned. Carl insists that the family be informed of Ralph’s whereabouts and be allowed to see him. She repeats her request to the family that they must make an appointment before seeing her. Carl says that they have tried many times and been given the runaround. She takes offence and says she is a busy woman, giving him an appointment for Wednesday. He wonders where the money from the Blakelock Fund, a charity organization to benefit the artist’s destitute family, had ended up, since they had not received a penny. He is told these things take time, and to have patience. She wonders if insanity runs in the family, since Marian is now in another mental institution. He tells her it is not her affair and kindly asks her not to tell Ralph about Marian’s internment. She answers, ”Your secret is safe with me.” Exit Carl. She answers the phone again and cheerily accepts another donation to the Fund.
Act IV, scene I
Ralph Blakelock photographed by
Beatrice Adams at Lynwood Lodge
A bungalow at Lynwood Lodge, New Jersey. Ralph is standing before a clean white canvas on a sturdy wooden easel. He is dressed in a vested suit, white shirt and tie, with polished black dress shoes. In his left hand he holds a clean wooden palette and a knobbed wooden baton for supporting his painting hand, which holds a clean brush. Beatrice is in the process of photographing him for a publicity photo. Ralph complains that it is unnatural for him to pose this way, that his public will get the wrong idea. Beatrice answers that they are supposed to get the wrong idea. She spills the beans about Marian’s internment. He is crushed. She reproaches him for ingratitude, and then threatens him when he refuses to paint on command. The scene ends with Beatrice striking him in the face and chest.
Act IV, scene II
The art dealer’s gallery in Manhattan, same set as I:ii. The art dealer is whistling ”She’ll be Commin’ ’Round the Mountain” as Beatrice enters with a framed painting by Ralph. They haggle over the painting and finally the dealer goes along with Beatrice’s price. The dealer compliments Beatrice on her con-game. Beatrice says she doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He responds: ”My feat is selling the golden eggs. You, Mrs. Adams, are in possession of the goose that lays them.” He says he is acquainted with her husband, a notorious con-man now in prison, and knows of his reputation as one of the cleverest swindlers in the country. She tells him to enjoy his new Blakelock and leaves. The dealer makes a telephone call to a colleague and gossips, saying he heard that the artist’s family had not received one penny of the $35,000 collected by Beatrice for the Blakelock Fund.
Act IV, scene III
The vernissage of Ralph’s retrospective exhibition at Galerie Sans Espoir in Manhattan, 1916. Art lovers mill about looking at the paintings. The first art lover and second art lover (same actors as first and second lunatics) discuss the ”tonalistic” school to which they expertly assign Ralph’s paintings, and praise the artist lavishly. The words ”Galerie Sans Espoir” are printed on a large picture window between them and the edge of the stage, which represents the sidewalk outside. They continue chatting inaudibly as Ralph and Beatrice stop on the sidewalk outside the window. Ralph has been again released in Beatrice’s custody to attend the opening. He has not been in the city for sixteen years. He is very famous in New York as ”the genius in the madhouse.” She gives him a pep-talk, brushes off his coat and straightens his tie. They enter the gallery as the picture window is rolled off-stage. Ralph goes into an adjoining salon off-stage to embrace an old friend. Beatrice politely greets the art dealer from the previous scenes, and there is much talk of money and high selling prices. Beatrice, who has helped organize this benefit show, announces that the $1 entry fee has yield $2,500 for the Blakelock Fund thus far. The artist enters and all applaud.
Act V, scene I
Doctor Ashley’s office at Middletown Hospital. He speaks to Cora sitting opposite him at his desk. The playwright is sitting in a chair at the front stage right, observing and taking notes in a notepad, an unseen dream figure. Cora is disappointed that she missed Ralph, and angered that the doctor cannot tell her his whereabouts. He has complete trust in Mrs. Adams. Cora is shocked to hear him speak of Ralph’s ”erotic fantasies” towards Beatrice. She has wasted a trip to the hospital when she had finally saved the carfare, and is offended that the family was not invited to Ralph’s retrospective in Manhattan. The doctor describes Ralph’s progress and how he deeply moves the staff with his piano playing. Cora weeps. He goes more and more into clinical detail describing Ralph’s condition, so that neither Cora nor the audience understands. The playwright writes faster and faster in his notepad to keep up with him as the words get more complicated, stopping theatrically with a gesture of exhaustion as the doctor ends his evaluation. There is a knock at the door and the playwright opens, telling the doctor it is the two lunatics. He is surprised by the intruder and asks who he is. The two lunatics enter and greet Cora, who then exits. They ask permission to put on a play. The doctor, the playwright and the two lunatics engage in an operatic dialogue on the art of drama.
Act V, scene II
Recreation room at Middletown Hospital. The asylum patients scrutinize Ralph’s paintings and drawings hung informally on the walls, echoing the gestures of the gallery-goers in IV:iii. The two lunatics are about to put on a play. At first they stand behind the audience as they are given a pep-talk by the playwright, who tells them an anecdote about the friends Molière and Corneille, heard by the two lunatics as Mully Hair and Corney. The three mount the stage, and the playwright joins Doctor Ashley, Beatrice, Ralph and the others to watch the play. It is the Creation Myth. Chaos and Darkness, two female dancers, each dance, the latter crowning Ralph with a paper crown bearing ”A1” on it, which is how he signed his paintings in his final years. The two lunatics begin to bicker over who shall be Comedy, and who shall be Tragedy, each tussling over the respective masks. The doctor flips a coin and misses the catch. All search for it on hands and knees. The play continues. There is a moment of blackness to signify darkness before Creation. The two lunatics bicker again. Exasperated, the doctor escorts them off stage. All exit except Ralph who stands alone in a spotlight and begins to deliver a soliloquy holding the mask of Tragedy. Dropping it, he expresses his weariness, his desire to be rescued and the belief that he is not mad. Exit Ralph. Over the empty stage Cora’s voice is heard in a letter to her son concerning Ralph’s deteriorating condition.
Act V, scene III
Ralph again dreams of the oak grove from II:ii. The set is the same, only it is morning. Instead of the rising moon’s disc behind the oak branches, it is the disc of the rising sun. The campfire is cold and the hammock is still, concealing the sleeping playwright. Ralph delivers a short soliloquy holding the mask of Comedy, and then lets it fall. In the distance the clanking of bulldozers is heard, and Ralph learns from the playwright what they are and that a freeway is going to pass through here destroying the oak grove. The scene is meant to be simultaneously Ralph’s dream as he lies dying and that of the playwright dreaming of Ralph dying. After a brief exchange there is a blinding light and Ralph disappears into his apotheosis. The playwright unties the hammock, puts it in his backpack and exits.
Act V, scene IV (coda)
Dark empty stage with spotlight illuminating Beatrice dressed in the clothes of a mental patient. Throughout the brief scene she does not speak. Her silent movements and gestures reveal a very disturbed and alienated woman. The voices of Ralph’s family are heard from the darkness, revealing how Beatrice was suspected of murdering Ralph in a rage, how in the coming decades she watched his fame get greater as she became a grubby bag-lady on the streets of New York, and how she went insane and was interned in the very same asylum where Ralph was first committed.
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