Vanity Fair, May 1916


A One-Act Drama of Blackmail—in One Act

By Pelham Grenville

THE scene is the richly-appointed study of J. Braithwaite Breamworthy, the millionaire president of the B. O. and P.  Of course a lot depends on the generosity of the producing manager. I may only be able to find one who will buy a set second-hand from Cain’s store-house and give me a cheap farce interior with seven doors. But let us call the place richly-appointed—while we can. The massive wall at the back sways gently in the breeze.

At the rise of the curtain, little Eva Breamworthy, a golden-haired mite of three (or younger, if children can speak at all coherently younger than that) is discovered seated on the floor. She is reading the market reports from the evening paper in a childish treble.

Eva: The mar-ket o-pened quiet but—

(Enter at back, J. Braithwaite Breamworthy. He is a man of fifty with a secret sorrow, which means that for stage purposes he will look like Methuselah’s elder brother—the one who kicked Methuselah at the age of six hundred and twenty because, in his opinion, the kid was getting fresh. Mr. Breamworthy’s hair is white, and there are deep lines on his face. He stands, watching his child.)

Eva: But the bulls made an at-tack—

Breamworthy (tenderly): My little Eva!

Eva (running to him): Daddy. My daddy.

Breamworthy: My little Eva.

Eva: My big, booful daddy.

Breamworthy: My little Eva.

All this may seem dull to you, but it is extremely skilful dramatic construction. I have got to establish an atmosphere of quiet domestic peace and happiness and I must fill in while the audience is getting into its seat, and then—discovering that it is the wrong one.

Eva: My big, booful daddy.

There is a faint pop in the auditorium as the last arrival sits on his hat, and then a tense stillness. Breamworthy, who has been “counting” the house, over the child’s golden head, realizes that the time has come to get on with the plot.

(He kisses Eva.) Now, run away, my darling. Daddy has got to corner wheat. (Eva kisses him and moves towards door. As she goes, Breamworthy covers his face with his hand and utters a deep groan. Eva stops.)

Eva (at door): Booful daddy, why is oo sad?

Breamworthy (raising a haggard face): Sad? Do I seem sad? (Laughs mirthlessly.) Ha! (Laughs mirthlessly again.) Ha!

Eva (prattling to her evening paper): Darling paper, why is daddy sad? (Exit, prattling.)

Breamworthy: Sad! (Laughs mirthlessly.) Ha! (Plunges face in hands, then, recovering himself, takes up receiver of telephone.) Give me umpty-um-umpty-um-um. (Pause.) Is that you, Dawkins? Sell Slambango Steel when it touches umpty-um. Buy a million of Umpty-um. Yes? No? Ah! No? Yes? All right. (Hangs up receiver.)

(Enter Mrs. Breamworthy. She is a richly-dressed woman of about forty. She wears the latest and scantiest costume advertised in the back pages of Vanity Fair, and a worried look.)

Mrs. Breamworthy: John.

Breamworthy: My dear?

Mrs. Breamworthy: John, I’m worried.

Breamworthy: Ha! (recovering himself) What seems to be the nature of the trouble?

Mrs. Breamworthy: Something is wrong, John. I cannot say what, but I sense it in the atmosphere. What is the matter with us? You are a rich man. I am an attractive woman. Yet Society gives us the cold shoulder. See. (Produces paper): Listen. (Reads) “Mrs. Stuyvesant-Stuyvesant’s Thé Dansant. . . . bobble-bobble-bobble . . . among the guests were Mrs. bobble-bobble-bobble, Mrs. bobble-bobble-bobble . . . and Mrs. bobble-bobble-bobble.” But not Mrs. J. Braithwaite Breamworthy. Why not Mrs. J. Braithwaite Breamworthy. Why am I never invited—(sobs) never invited?

Breamworthy (massaging her shoulder. Soothing stuff): My dear!

Mrs. Breamworthy (sobbing): I cannot bear it. Why did we ever leave Kansas City for this horrible town? Kansas City, where we were so well known and respected—where I could make a social reputation with a nod of my head and break one with a shake. Why can’t I move in swift society here? Why am I ostracized? Why was I not invited to Mrs. de Peyster’s last supper? Why am I not invited anywhere? (Breaks away, and makes for door.) Ah! It is torturing me. I cannot bear it. (Exit. Sobs diminish in distance off stage): Oh! Oh! Oh! (Or even a better line, if we can think one up during rehearsals.)

There is a pause here as long as the audience will stand for it. Breamworthy fills in with business of busy business-man. He takes up a pen, lays it down; takes up a sheet of paper, lays it down; takes up telephone, lays it down; and does all the other things by means of which large fortunes are made.

(Enter Billings, a butler.)

Billings: A gentleman to see you, sir.

Breamworthy: Strange. (Reads card) “Jasper K. Skinner.” Show him in. (Exit Billings.)

Breamworthy: Jasper K. Skinner? (Takes up card again and examines it.) Jasper K. Skinner. (Sinking his voice to a whisper.) Jasper K. Skinner.

It is this sort of thing which marks off your professional playwright from the amateur. The lines are inserted to give Billings time to fetch Mr. Skinner from the hall, where the under-butler is watching him to see that he does not steal any coats and umbrellas. It is technique.

(Re-enter Billings.)

Billings: Mr. Jasper K. Skinner.

(Enter Skinner. He is a hard-faced, sinister-looking man of middle age. You can tell at a glance that he is a bad lot. There is something furtive about him, something shifty. Exit Billings.)

Breamworthy: Mr. Skinner? You wished to see me? Take a seat. (Skinner sits down, and there is a pause.)

Skinner (offensively): Nice little place you have here, Breamworthy.

Breamworthy (starting at this familiarity.) MR. Breamworthy!

Skinner: You are a rich man.

Breamworthy: I am.

Skinner: You will need to be.

Breamworthy: What is the meaning?

Skinner: I know all.

Breamworthy: All what?

Skinner: All about you.

Breamworthy: Explain yourself.

Skinner: I will.

(Skinner produces pocketbook.)

Breamworthy: What have you there?

Skinner: Copies, J. Braithwaite Breamworthy, of documents which prove that it was you—you, the Wellington of Wall Street, the Napoleon of the Ritz—who, in the spring of ’96, got a divorce from your first wife, while your present, second wife, was getting a divorce from her second husband to marry you!

Breamworthy: Ha!

Skinner: You little thought that Jasper K. Skinner was on your track. For years I have planned and plotted to secure the necessary evidence, and now, J. Braithwaite Breamworthy, I’ve got you.

Breamworthy: You say you can prove this?

Skinner: To the hilt. So what shall we say, to begin with? A million?

Breamworthy: A million? What for?

Skinner: The price of my silence.

(Enter simultaneously at back, Mrs. Breamworthy, little Eva, and Billings. [As a matter of fact, I shall want a farce set after all. At least three doors are essential—one for each of these three characters] The wife, the child, and the butler stand there, unperceived, listening.)

Breamworthy: The price of your silence? Good heavens man, you don’t think I want to keep this silent, do you? For years I have planned and plotted to get this thing into the papers; to prove that I was once a divorced man, but they have never been willing to print it. They said that we were not sufficiently well known to make the item desirable for them. The inability to prove our claims, and get them published in Town Topics, The Herald and the Clubfellow has blighted our lives, blighted my wife’s life, blighted the life of my innocent child, and blighted the life of my faithful butler. Ah, the snobbishness of New York society! Just because there were no divorce scandals which were familiarly known about us, these haughty social magnates continue to snub us. Their wives refused to receive my wife. Their children avoided my child. Their butlers looked down on my butler. And when I tried to tell them how thoroughly divorced we were they wouldn’t believe me—they wouldn’t believe me. They told me to prove it. And now you have come, and all is well.

Skinner (thunderstruck): You won’t come across?

Breamworthy: Not a cent.

Skinner: Then I shall destroy the documents and deny that you were ever divorced.

Breamworthy: It will be useless. See! (Produces dictaphone from under desk.) Every word of our conversation is recorded here. I’ll show it to all the city editors. They’ll print it now; every one of them.

Skinner: But, dash it, Breamworthy, I’ve sunk all my money in getting those documents.

Eva: Serve you right, bad Mister Man.

Skinner: Won’t you even give me my car-fare home?

Breamworthy: No.

Skinner: Curse you Breamworthy. (Exit.)

Breamworthy: Come, Genevieve. Come Eva. Come, Billings. (Holds out his arms.) The Stuyvesants and the De Peysters will absolutely grovel at our feet. The papers will not dare to omit our names from those present at the Ritz; at the Winter Garden; at the opera; at the dog show; at the Piping Rock Club; at Heaven only knows where.

(Mrs. Breamworthy, Eva and Billings rush into his arms, forming an extremely pretty picture as the curtain descends quietly.