When 'The Piper' Won the Prize
IN April, in 1921, Josephine Preston Peabody was entreated by fellow guests at a luncheon given in her honor to relate the story of winning the Stratford-on-Avon prize with her play, The Piper. The tale is so wholly charming, so directly out of the fairy land in which her mind played as by nature, that it should not be lost. This report, made by one of the guests and reviewed and amended by the husband in the story, is set down, as nearly as may be, in her own words.
She said, ‘I did not see the notice of the Stratford-on-Avon prize until shortly before the expiration of the time limit set by the committee. My play, The Piper, was then in print, but had not yet been published— that is, it had not been announced in the press or put on sale. I cabled to know if, under the conditions, I might send it to enter in competition for the prize, and, receiving an immediate reply that I might, I did. Then followed a long, trying period of waiting, made the more difficult by the fact that I was for many weeks held prisoner in a hospital bed. My little son had arrived, but with attending circumstances that kept me in weariness and pain for an exasperating number of days. At length a cablegram came stating that, out of 315 plays submitted, the committee had selected seven. This did not seem very promising, yet the question persisted, Why had they cabled me?
‘Presently a second message announced that the committee had reduced the number from seven to two, of which The Piper was one, and that the plays had been sent to the Duke of Connaught, who would make the final choice. This was most exciting, and further waiting seemed too trying to be endured.
‘In the olden times, in New England, our ancestors sometimes used the Bible in a necromantic way, requiring of it prophetic answers to set questions. They would hold the Book in their hands, ask it a question, open it at random, place a finger on a verse without looking at it, and then interpret what they found in terms of the question asked. My grandmother had told me of curious and surprising results. Remembering this, I reached over to the stand at the side of my bed and picked up a tiny copy of A MidsummerNight’s Dream, one of a miniature edition of the plays belonging to a set I had purchased in Stratford three years before. I held the little volume between my palms and said, “O little book, what is going to happen?” Then I slipped my finger between the pages, pressed it against a random verse, and read, “Not a word of me. All that I will tell you is, that the Duke hath dined. Get your apparel together, good strings to your beards, new ribbons to your pumps; meet presently at the palace.”
‘ The reference to the Duke was most happy, delighting me with its suggestion of postprandial content. The whole passage was surely prophetic; but when my husband came, and I had told him, he took the volume, turned the page, and completed the message. He read, “Every man look o’er his part; for the short and the long is, our play is preferred.”
‘And then, a few days later, a cabled message reported that The Piper had been preferred, though it did not use the Shakespearean words to tell me so. Urgent messages followed, asking that I come over to England to assist in the rehearsing of the play, to attend its presentation, and to receive the prize.
‘At first it seemed as though the journey would be an impossibility for me, but my husband and I, with our two babies and a nurse, crossed the ocean. Fortunately my husband’s family live in England and we could leave the wee ones with them and go to Stratford ourselves. There I was shown every consideration and all courtesy. I remember with particular gratitude the generous praise of the critics and the press, who would, presumably, have preferred that an English writer should take the prize.
‘The play was presented in the afternoon. I was given the seat of honor, in the box at the right of the stage. The audience was as cordial as the press and the critics had been, and I, unused to publicity, was almost overcome with gratitude and joy; but the best moment came later. You remember that the Memorial Theatre has a window so large that it occupies the end of the building and opens upon a panorama of the Avon River and the church, in the distance, where you are forbidden to dig certain dust. When the play had begun and I knew that it held the thought and the heart of the audience, that they had forgotten me, I sat all by myself, as it were, looking up the quiet river to his church. Then came to me the moment of purest creative joy of my life!’