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Act I, Scene 5
New York City, the 1870s. Newland Archer, a young lawyer, is engaged to the socialite May Welland, uniting two of New York’s oldest families. Just before their engagement is announced, the Countess Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin, returns to her native New York from Europe in an aura of scandal, having left her dissolute husband, the Polish Count Olenski. When all of New York refuses an invitation to a dinner given by Catherine Mingott, in honor of her granddaughter Ellen, Newland goes to Ellen’s house to console her . . .
NASTASIA [leaving the room]
Verrà, verrà …
[Archer examines the room—he sees a book of poetry on a table, picks it up, and begins to leaf through it. At that moment, Ellen enters the room in her coat, having just come in from the cold]
Granny said you’d be paying me a visit.
What do you think of my funny little house?
You’ve arranged it delightfully.
I like this little house.
I like its blessedness of being here,
in my own country, my own town—
And being alone in it.
You like so much to be alone?
As long as my friends keep me from feeling lonely.
I feel so safe here in New York—
it’s like being taken on holiday
when one has been a good girl,
done all one’s lessons,
pleased one’s parents
and one’s family.
And now at this hour,
just at twilight, I can be alone
with my books, my own thoughts—
and a few precious things
I brought here across an ocean,
from my old life.
[She touches a book on a table]
You know this?
I was reading it when you came in.
It’s Rossetti—The House of Life.
When I read him, it’s as if he knows me
better than I know myself.
In my old life, I read his words
to free my prisoned spirit
from a life of illusions:
Where all the soirées,
could not make me forget
the betrayals, falsehoods—
There was no life for me.
But you know you are among friends here.
Yes, I know.
That’s why I came home.
To feel cared for and safe,
and be among friends—
friends like you and Mr. Beaufort.
I did so want to meet everyone
at Granny’s dinner party.
You know . . . you heard about the party . . .
It was so kind of Granny…
but it couldn’t go on after all…
she said she was feeling unwell…
You don’t know, then…
You must know that all New York refused—
refused the invitation.
Refused? No one refuses Granny…
No . . . refused you. To meet you.
[Ellen is completely shocked; she looks away]
You must try to understand.
Here everything is labeled—
but everybody is not.
You can’t mistake our freedom
for license to forget
where you are, who you are:
A countess—and one of the family.
A woman whom we all know
has left—left her husband.
And as for Julius Beaufort—
he isn’t the friend you think he is.
You’re seen with him too often . . .
But your family can advise you;
the older women want to help—
I know—as long as they hear nothing unpleasant.
So Granny said when I tried to say…
Does no one here want to know the truth, Mr. Archer?
The real loneliness is being among all these kind people
who only ask one to pretend.
[She breaks down in tears]
Pretend? . . .
Madame Olenska . . .
You mustn’t . . .
[He touches her hand]
Ellen . . .
Does no one cry here, either?
I suppose there’s no need to…
[Taking her hand back and regaining her composure]
And you and May!
Granny told me.
You’ll be my cousin soon.
ARCHER [relieved to have the subject changed]
Yes, May scolded me for not telling you at the opera.
May is such a darling—
the most handsome and intelligent girl
in all New York.
Are you very much in love with her?
As much as a man can be.
Do you think there’s a limit?
To being in love?
If there is, I haven’t found it!
It’s really and truly a romance then—
not in the least arranged.
[A clock chimes]
It’s late—I’ve kept you too long.
Yes, I should go.
[Nastasia enters with Archer’s coat and helps him on with it. He takes them from her and puts them on. Ellen picks up the volume of Rossetti from the table and proffers it to him]
I should like you to have this.
Are you sure?
[She nods, and he takes it from her]
You’re most kind. I must go.
You’ll want to be with May.
[Nastasia leaves. Archer turns back once more before going]
I do want to help you.
You do help me.
Goodnight, my cousin.
Act I, Scene 7
The next morning, Newland and May are out for a stroll in Central Park. Archer has the volume of Rossetti with him.
It’s so wonderful—waking every morning
to the smell of lilies-of-the-valley in my room!
They came late yesterday, I know.
I hadn’t time till the afternoon.
But you always remember.
And cousin Ellen received a bouquet of orchids from Mr. Jackson,
and a whole hamper of carnations from Julius Beaufort.
She seemed so surprised to receive flowers—
don’t people send them in Europe?
Perhaps not—but Ellen has much to learn about our ways here.
We’re all so grateful to you, Newland, for teaching her.
You know, I can’t make her understand
why we have such long engagements in America.
Dearest, not even I quite understand why we should have such a long engagement.
Newland—you know as well as I.
The Chiverses were engaged for two years,
The Leffertses a year and a half—
It’s only what Mamma and Granny expect.
But why should we be like all the others?
Is there nothing I can say…
Oh, Newland, let’s not argue—
Not now, a week after our engagement.
[Noticing the book]
You’ve brought a book with you—is it poetry?
Let me see!
[He shows it to her]
Rossetti! It is poetry!
Where did you find it, Newland?
[he stops himself]
It came with my monthly shipment of books from London.
You always find the most lovely books.
Do read me something from it.
[opening the book]
What about this one—
“The Bridal Birth”?
How à propos! I want to hear it.
“As when desire, long darkling, dawns, and first
The mother looks upon the new-born child,
Even so my Lady stood at gaze and smiled
When her soul knew at length the Love it nursed.
“Born with her life, creature of poignant thirst
And exquisite hunger,
“At her heart Love lay quickening in darkness,
“Till a voice that day cried on him,
“and the bonds of birth were burst.
Now, shielded in his wings, our faces yearn
Together, as his fullgrown feet now range the grove
and his warm hands our couch prepare:
Till to his song our bodiless souls in turn
Be born his children,
when Death’s nuptial change
Leaves us for light the halo of his hair.”
[May contemplates the words for a moment]
“When her soul knew at length the Love it nursed.”
Isn’t that the love we feel for one another?
We needn’t to rush to confirm it with nuptial vows.
That will all come in good time.
For we have each other till that day arrives, don’t we, Newland?
But why not be happier?
Why should we dream away another year?
Only do read another poem.
I love to hear you read.
[Archer expresses the slightest impatience with her, but she only smiles at him. He smiles back and turns to the next poem]
[As he reads, he pays less and less attention to May, becoming more and more drawn into the poem]
“O thou who at Love’s hour ecstatically
Unto my heart dost evermore present,
Clothed with his fire, thy heart his testament;
Whom I have neared and felt thy breath to be
The inmost incense of his sanctuary;
Who without speech hast owned him, and, intent
Upon his will, thy life with mine has blent,
And murmured, ‘I am thine, thou art one with me!’
O what from thee the grace, to me the prize,
And what to Love the glory,—when the whole
Of the deep stair that thou tread’st to the dim shoal
And weary water of the place of sighs,
And there dost work deliverance, as thine eyes
Draw up my prisoned spirit to thy soul!”
[He remains lost in his own world, as May looks at him, bewildered]
Newland . . . Newland, what is it?
[coming out of his reverie]
Only the words remind me . . . of how much I love you.
Don’t you see, dear, that I couldn’t be happier?
And this is just the beginning—
It’s the wonderful happiness we’ll always have together!
ARCHER [smiling at her]
Yes . . . always happy.
[She puts her arm through his as they walk on]
MAY [as they exit]
Did I tell you I showed Ellen my ring?
She said there’s nothing like it in the Rue de la Paix.
I do love you, Newland, for being so artistic!
Act I, Scene 11
Ellen has announced her intention to sue her husband for divorce, an event which would constitute a social nightmare for Newland’s and May’s families, who call on Newland to dissuade Ellen from the idea. Bowing to family pressure, he succeeds in persuading her to drop the divorce case. A week later, Archer visits Ellen at her house, and relates to her a recent conversation he and May had in Florida, where her family has been spending the winter.
Who would be ridiculous enough
to send me a bouquet?
I’m not going to a ball,
and I’m not engaged.
Nastasia, porta questi [Nastasia, take these
ai nostri vicini in fondo di questa strada. to our neighbors down the street]
[Nastasia exits with the flowers]
You’re back so soon from St. Augustine! And how is my cousin?
May and I had a frank talk in Florida—probably our first.
I wanted her to know how much I wanted to marry her now.
MAY [as part of Archer’s memory; Ellen does not hear her]
I’m not sure I do understand, Newland—
Is it because you’re not sure you’ll care for me a year from now?
I told her she was talking madness.
But she went on . . .
Is there somebody else—between you and me?
For I’ve felt a difference in you, especially since our engagement.
If this is madness, then it won’t hurt to say this,
But if it’s not—why shouldn’t we say this?
You might have made a mistake.
But if I’d made a mistake, would I be trying to hurry our marriage?
Yes . . . you might. It’s one way to settle the question.
She thinks I want to marry her at once
To get away from someone I care for more.
She wants to give me time . . .
To give her up for another woman?
If I want to. Yes.
I didn’t think she would ever guess . . .
You mustn’t think a girl knows as little as her parents imagine.
I knew there was someone else, two years ago,
before you cared for me, and I for you.
I saw you with her at a dance in Newport.
And later that evening, she looked so sad;
I felt sorry for her.
This other woman—does she love you?
ARCHER [becoming exasperated]
There is no other woman—the person that May was thinking of—was never . . .
If she only knew the truth . . .
But what is the truth, Newland?
I know you couldn’t be cruel to someone who loves you;
And I can’t have my happiness made out of a wrong to someone else.
When two people love one another—
even if it means going against what all society thinks,
even if she has to get a divorce—
then Newland, don’t give her up because of me!
I told her that I made no other pledges.
That I want to marry only her.
And she believed me.
I do love you, Newland.
It’s only one more year, and then we’ll be together, always…
[A long pause. Archer summons up the courage to say what he has to say]
May guessed the truth.
There is another woman—
but not the one she thinks.
[He reaches for Ellen’s hand. She gets up abruptly and goes to the other side of the room]
Don’t make love to me!
Too many people have done that!
I’ve never made love to you—
But you are the woman I would have married
if it had been possible for either of us!
You say that when it’s you who’ve made it impossible?
I’ve made it impossible—?
Didn’t you make me give up divorce
because you showed me how wicked it was?
So for May’s sake, and for yours, I did what you told me!
But your husband’s letter . . .
I had nothing to fear from that letter—absolutely nothing!
All I feared was to bring scandal on the family—on you and May.
I’ve made no secret that I’ve done it for you.
[She breaks down in tears]
Ellen . . . this is madness . . .
nothing’s done that can’t be undone.
I’m still free, and you’re going to be.
[He takes her in his arms and kisses her. She returns the kiss]
My poor Newland . . .we can’t alter things now.
You’re engaged, and I’m married.
It’s too late to do anything else.
I don’t understand you.
You don’t understand, because you don’t know how you’ve changed things for me.
You don’t know all you’ve done.
All I’ve done . . . ?
You’ve always been thinking of me:
Announcing your engagement at the ball,
So that two families would stand beside me, instead of one.
Coming to see me after all New York refused Granny’s invitation…
I didn’t understand how dreadful people thought I was.
New York meant freedom to me; it felt like coming home.
But from the first, there was no one as kind as you.
You knew what it was to be tempted:
To feel the world beckoning with its golden hands.
But you hated what it asked of one:
to have happiness bought with cruelty, disloyalty,
a wrong to someone else.
That’s what I’d never known before—
and it’s better than anything I’ve known.
And who will you go to now?
Is he the one to keep you from feeling lonely?
I was lonely; I was afraid.
But I shan’t be now.
To have found you, to love you,
brings morn to these eyes
that have known only night.
Only with you is the darkness gone,
and when I turn back into myself,
I’m like a child going into a room
where there’s always light.
Newland, let’s not undo what you’ve done . . .
Don’t you see that I can’t love you unless I give you up?
[A tableau of the two for a moment. Nastasia enters with a telegram]
Signora . . .
[She gives the telegram to Ellen and leaves. Ellen opens it and reads it, then hands it to Archer without comment]
MAY [as Archer reads the telegram]
Granny’s telegram successful—
Mamma and Mrs. Archer agree to marriage after Easter, in only a month!
Will telegraph Newland. Am too happy for words.
Your grateful May.
What a life for you . . . !
It is a life . . .
as long as it’s part of yours.
The scenes above were recorded live at a performance in New York City on November 17, 2013.
The cast was as follows:
Countess Ellen Olenska
The stage director was Andrew Chown. The musical director and pianist was Donna Gill.