The Jewel Merchants: A Comedy in One Act

Produced by Suzanne Shell, Clare Boothby and PG Distributed Proofreaders

The Jewel Merchants
A Comedy in One Act


James Branch Cabell

     “Io non posso ritrar di tutti appieno:

       pero chi si mi caccia il lungo tema,

    che molte volte al fatto il dir vieti meno.”

                   NEW YORK



     This latest avatar of so many notions

           which were originally hers.


Prudence urges me here to forestall detection, by conceding that this
brief play has no pretension to “literary” quality. It is a piece in
its inception designed for, and in its making swayed by, the requirements
of the little theatre stage. The one virtue which anybody anywhere could
claim for The Jewel Merchants is the fact that it “acts” easily and
rather effectively.

And candor compels the admission forthwith that the presence of this
anchoritic merit in the wilderness is hardly due to me. When circumstances
and the Little Theatre League of Richmond combined to bully me into
contriving the dramatization of a short story called Balthazar’s
, I docilely converted this tale into a one-act play of which
you will find hereinafter no sentence. The comedy I wrote is now at one
with the lost dramaturgy of Pollio and of Posidippus, and is even less
likely ever to be resurrected for mortal auditors.

It read, I still think, well enough: I am certain that, when we came to
rehearse, the thing did not “act” at all, and that its dialogue, whatever
its other graces, had the defect of being unspeakable. So at each
rehearsal we—by which inclusive pronoun I would embrace the actors and
the producing staff at large, and with especial (metaphorical) ardor Miss
Louise Burleigh, who directed all—changed here a little, and there a
little more; and shifted this bit, and deleted the other, and “tried out”
everybody’s suggestions generally, until we got at least the relief of
witnessing at each rehearsal a different play. And steadily my manuscript
was enriched with interlineations, to and beyond the verge of legibility,
as steadily I substituted, for the speeches I had rewritten yesterday,
the speeches which the actor (having perfectly in mind the gist but not
the phrasing of what was meant) delivered naturally.

This process made, at all events, for what we in particular wanted,
which was a play that the League could stage for half an evening’s
entertainment; but it left existent not a shred of the rhetorical
fripperies which I had in the beginning concocted, and it made of the
actual first public performance a collaboration with almost as many
contributing authors as though the production had been a musical comedy.

And if only fate had gifted me with an exigent conscience and a turn for
oratory, I would, I like to think, have publicly confessed, at that first
public performance, to all those tributary clarifying rills to the play’s
progress: but, as it was, vainglory combined with an aversion to
“speech-making” to compel a taciturn if smirking acceptance of the
curtain-call with which an indulgent audience flustered the nominal author
of The Jewel Merchants…. Now, in any case, it is due my collaborators
to tell you that The Jewel Merchants has amply fulfilled the purpose
of its makers by being enacted to considerable applause,—and is a
pleasure to add that this succès d’estime was very little chargeable to
anything which I contributed to the play.

For another matter, I would here confess that The Jewel Merchants,
in addition to its “literary” deficiencies, lacks moral fervor. It will,
I trust, corrupt no reader irretrievably, to untraversable leagues beyond
the last hope of redemption: but, even so, it is a frankly unethical
performance. You must accept this resuscitated trio, if at all, very much
as they actually went about Tuscany, in long ago discarded young flesh,
when the one trait everywhere common to their milieu was the absence of
any moral excitement over such-and-such an action’s being or not being
“wicked.” This phenomenon of Renaissance life, as lived in Italy in
particular, has elsewhere been discussed time and again, and I lack here
the space, and the desire, either to explain or to apologize for the era’s
delinquencies. I would merely indicate that this point of conduct is the
fulcrum of The Jewel Merchants.

The play presents three persons, to any one of whom the committing of
murder or theft or adultery or any other suchlike interdicted feat, is
just the risking of the penalty provided against the breaking of that
especial law if you have the vile luck to be caught at it: and this to
them is all that “wickedness” can mean. We nowadays are encouraged to
think differently: but such dear privileges do not entitle us to ignore
the truth that had any of these three advanced a dissenting code of
conduct, it would, in the time and locality, have been in radical
irreverence of the best-thought-of tenets. There was no generally
recognized criminality in crime, but only a perceptible risk. So must
this trio thriftily adhere to the accepted customs of their era, and
regard an infraction of the Decalogue (for an instance) very much as we
today look on a violation of our prohibition enactments.

In fact, we have accorded to the Eighteenth Amendment almost exactly the
status then reserved for Omnipotence. You found yourself confronted by
occasionally enforced if obviously unreasonable supernal statutory
decrees, which every one broke now and then as a matter of convenience:
and every now and then, also, somebody was caught and punished, either in
this world or in the next, without his ill-fortune’s involving any
disgrace or particular reprehension. As has been finely said,
righteousness and sinfulness were for the while “in strange and dreadful
peace with each other. The wicked man did not dislike virtue, nor the good
man vice: the villain could admire a saint, and the saint could excuse a
villain, in things which we often shrink from repeating, and sometimes
recoil from believing.”

Such was the sixteenth-century Tuscan view of “wickedness.” I have
endeavored to reproduce it without comment.

So much of ink and paper and typography may be needed, I fear, to remind
you, in a more exhortatory civilization, that Graciosa is really, by all
the standards of her day, a well reared girl. To the prostitution of her
body, whether with or without the assistance of an ecclesiastically
acquired husband, she looks forward as unconcernedly as you must by
ordinary glance out of your front window, to face a vista so familiar
that the discovery of any change therein would be troubling. Meanwhile
she wishes this sorrow-bringing Eglamore assassinated, as the obvious,
the most convenient, and indeed the only way of getting rid of him: and
toward the end of the play, alike for her and Guido, the presence of a
corpse in her garden is merely an inconvenience without any touch of the
gruesome. Precautions have, of course, to be taken to meet the emergency
which has arisen: but in the dead body of a man per se, the lovers can
detect nothing more appalling, or more to be shrunk from, than would be
apparent if the lifeless object in the walkway were a dead flower. The
thing ought to be removed, if only in the interest of tidiness, but there
is no call to make a pother over it.

As for our Guido, he is best kept conformable to modern tastes, I suspect,
by nobody’s prying too closely into the earlier relations between the
Duke and his handsome minion. The insistently curious may resort to
history to learn at what price the favors of Duke Alessandro were secured
and retained: it is no part of the play.

Above all, though, I must remind you that the Duke is unspurred by
malevolence. A twinge of jealousy there may be, just at first, to find his
pampered Eglamore so far advanced in the good graces of this pretty girl,
but that is hardly important. Thereafter the Duke is breaking no law,
for the large reason that his preference in any matter is the only law
thus far divulged to him. As concerns the man and the girl he discovers on
this hill-top, they, in common with all else in Tuscany, are possessions
of Duke Alessandro’s. They can raise no question as to how he “ought” to
deal with them, for to your chattels, whether they be your finger rings or
your subjects or your pomatum pots or the fair quires whereon you indite
your verses, you cannot rationally he said to “owe” anything…. No, the
Duke is but a spirited lad in quest of amusement: and Guido and Graciosa
are the playthings with which, on this fine sunlit morning, he attempts to
divert himself.

This much being granted—and confessed,—we let the play begin.

Dumbarton Grange,
June, 1921

* * * * *

[“Alessandro de Medici is generally styled by the Italian authors the
first duke of Florence; but in this they are not strictly accurate. His
title of duke was derived from Città, or Cività di Penna, and had been
assumed by him several years before he obtained the direction of the
Florentine state. It must also be observed, that, after the evasion of
Eglamore, Duke Alessandro did not, as Robertson observes, ‘enjoy the
same absolute dominion as his family have retained to the present times,’
(Hist. Charles V. book v.) he being only declared chief or prince of the
republic, and his authority being in some measure counteracted or
restrained by two councils chosen from the citizens, for life, one of
which consisted of forty-eight, and the other of two hundred members.
(Varchi, Storia Fior. p. 497: Nerli, Com. lib. xi. pp. 257, 264.)”]

* * * * *


“Diamente nè smeraldo nè zaffino.”

Originally produced by the Little Theatre League of Richmond, Virginia,

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